Puny mercy

Posted: Dec 28, 2002 12:00 AM
President Bush showed America a trickle of mercy last week. Bush was right to pardon seven Americans, each of whom had been convicted of what a spokesperson called "a relatively minor offense" between 1957 and 1993 -- such as stealing $10.90 to feed a drug habit, altering an odometer and bootlegging. "This is not an empty symbolic gesture," noted Margaret C. Love, who served as the pardon attorney for the first president Bush. The pardon signifies to society that the recipient has redeemed himself, she explained, and can determine whether he can own a gun, pass a security clearance or vote in some states. That said, seven pardons and no sentence commutations is a piddling accomplishment after two years in office. In context, Love dismissed the pardons as "seven little hiccups." Consider the sentences served by Bush's pardon recipients. In 1962, the now pardoned Kenneth Franklin Copley received two years probation for peddling moonshine. In 1972, recipient Paul Herman Wieser was sentenced to 18 months of probation for stealing $38,000 worth of copper wire. Those sentences are peanuts compared to the sentences being served by many first-time nonviolent drug offenders in the federal system this Christmas. Laws that were supposed to put away drug kingpins have been subverted so that drug dealers can turn in the help and get soft time, while their gofers may serve decades-long sentences. First-time nonviolent drug offender Clarence Aaron is in prison serving a life sentence without parole for hooking up two drug dealers to do two drug deals, one of which never happened. All but one of his accomplices -- the pros -- are free, while he faces a lifetime behind bars. Terri Christine Taylor was 19 years old when she was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for buying legal chemicals for her boyfriend's illegal drug operation. She has served 11 years of that sentence. If she had been a big-shot, she could have offered up underlings and gotten out of prison years ago. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has asked Bush to consider commuting Taylor's sentence in light of her "relatively minor role" and efforts to rehabilitate herself. Love, the former pardon attorney, figures that Bush should have pardoned or commuted the sentences of as many as 40 people this year -- not just seven. Families Against Mandatory Minimums founder Julie Stewart believes Bush should have commuted the sentences of "dozens" of low-level first-time nonviolent drug offenders, whose biggest sin was to be convicted after Congress passed a draconian drug law in 1986. If, in 1986, Congress had told the public that it was passing a sentencing law that looked to be tough on kingpins but in fact would enable the biggest drug players to avoid long sentences, Americans would have been appalled. If the public had understood that the only true check on prosecutors who are harsher on petty criminals than high-level drug dealers would be the presidential pardon, Congress (one would hope) would have been too ashamed to pass the legislation. If Congress didn't know what it was doing then, federal law enforcement knows all too well now what the law has wrought: get-out-of-jail-free cards for kingpins; and despair for their dupes. But the feds have convinced themselves that it's so vital that the government look tough on drug offenders, and never admit when the system fails, that they can accept these outrages. Because the feds are battling a destructive force, they seem to think it's OK to let petty criminals -- people who are more wrong-minded than dangerous -- waste away for decades, perhaps for a lifetime. Anything to look tough on drugs. Only one man in America has the power to end these injustices and ensure that the punishment fits the crime. How it breaks my heart that George W. Bush, who is such a giant, has limited himself to meting out pardons to bootleggers and a man who rolled back an odometer. It is beneath him.