Jacob Sullum

When he used his clemency power to keep I. Lewis Libby out of prison, President Bush said a sentence of two and a half years was excessive punishment for lying to federal investigators about conversations with reporters. I agree. But the president's sudden desire to correct unjust sentences is hard to credit, given how little interest he has shown in this area until now.

In six and a half years, Bush has granted 113 pardons, typically used to clear the records of reformed criminals after they've completed their sentences. Counting Libby's, he has issued only four commutations, which allow people who receive excessive sentences to go free early.

If federal sentences as unfair as Libby's were handed down that rarely, we would have a criminal justice system in which every defendant had adequate representation, suspects were not penalized for defending their innocence, low-level offenders were never punished more severely than higher-ups with information to trade, and judges were never forced to impose mandatory sentences they considered grossly disproportionate. But given the system we actually have, it's not hard to find injustices more egregious than the one Bush said compelled him to intervene on Libby's behalf. The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums has files full of them.

Consider Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old Utah record producer with two children who in 2004 was sent to prison for 55 years -- a life sentence, in effect -- because he owned guns when he sold a police informant two eight-ounce bags of marijuana, thereby triggering mandatory minimum sentencing provisions aimed at violent criminals. When he imposed the sentence, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell urged Bush to commute it, calling it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

A gun also figured in the case of Monica Clyburn, a 38-year-old mother of four who more than a decade ago went with her boyfriend to sell his pistol at a Florida pawnshop. Because he did not have ID, she signed the pawn slip and left her thumb print. Clyburn, who had been convicted of selling three $20 rocks of crack cocaine to an undercover officer several years before, was prohibited from owning firearms, so this pawnshop visit led to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence she is still serving. "I never even held the gun," she says.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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