Once a bad law becomes the law of the land, it takes years of activism engaged by countless voices to force Washington to patch things up for a handful of the bad law's victims. In 1993, Clarence Aaron, a 24-year-old college student, was convicted for his role in a crack cocaine deal. Aaron neither bought nor sold drugs; he was paid $1,500 for connecting two dealers. Nonetheless a federal court sentenced him to life without parole.
In "Snitch," a January 1999 "Frontline" documentary, producer Ofra Bikel reported how career dealers were able to reduce their sentences by testifying against Aaron, who was condemned to life in prison.
Few prosecutors would argue that life until death in prison is a just sentence for a first-time nonviolent offender. And yet the Department of Justice was content to let stand this out-of-whack punishment.
It took a small army of outraged individuals and attorneys some 14 years to win Aaron and seven other crack offenders commutations that President Obama signed Dec. 19.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums vetted inmates whose stories brought a human face to the toll of draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences. Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling worked with Aaron's mother, Linda, and cousin Aaron Martin to publicize this medieval punishment.
I first wrote in favor of a presidential commutation for Aaron in 2001. In 2004, the Department of Justice pardon attorney recommended that President George W. Bush deny Aaron's request. In 2008, the White House returned the denial recommendation and asked a new pardon attorney to review the petition. Again, the Department of Justice recommended denial.
That never should have happened.
The pardon attorney is supposed to recommend clemency for worthy offenders. But as former pardon staff attorney Sam Morison told me, inside the Department of Justice there's "institutional resistance" to fixing misdeeds committed by federal prosecutors.
It's easier to keep wronged offenders locked up and out of sight. Once outsiders identified Aaron as one, said Morison, "he was marked."
Later, ProPublica's Dafna Linzer reported in the Washington Post that federal pardon attorney Ron Rodgers had withheld the sentencing judge's and prosecutor's newfound support for a sentence reduction in 2008. That is, he misled President Bush. Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz confirmed Linzer's story -- and still Rodgers remains the pardon attorney.