The greatest gift

Posted: Sep 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Last Christmas, President George W. Bush issued his first presidential pardons for seven individuals who had been convicted of minor offenses between 1957 and 1993. Bush issued no commutations of sentences. So this year, I'm submitting my Christmas wish-list early.

Mr. President, please commute the sentences of nonviolent federal prisoners who have been sentenced to decades behind bars for committing crimes that would earn them a few years or even months behind bars from state courts.

Save the taxpayers some money.

Save cell space for violent thugs and drug kingpins who should grow old behind bars.

Consider the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in a summer speech in San Francisco railed against the injustice of the federal mandatory-minimum sentence of five years for a first-time offender caught with 5 grams of crack -- if the offender is arrested on federal property. The same kid would likely serve but months, if arrested by local police.

Don't put people away for half a lifetime for living pathetic lives.

Commute the sentence of Clarence Aaron.

Aaron was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense committed in 1992 when he was 23. His crime? He had hooked up two drug dealers. He didn't plead guilty -- he now admits he was -- and couldn't or wouldn't turn over other players in the drug biz. The result: While murderers often serve shorter time, Aaron was sentenced to life without parole.

Aaron's appeals attorney Gregg Shapiro of Boston noted, "There is no reasonable justification for permanently excluding from society a person like Clarence Aaron." Justice Kennedy spoke of the insanity of sentencing 20-year-old first-offenders to 10 or 15 years.

Without a presidential pardon, Clarence Aaron will live and die without another breath of freedom.

Margaret Love, the pardon attorney for the first President Bush, doesn't believe that pardons should be considered a holiday gift -- the administration should issue them when it discovers unjust sentences that demand redress, she said.

Still, Love would welcome a Christmas pardon for Willie Mays Aikens, the former baseball player who was arrested in 1994 for selling crack to an undercover agent. Aikens is no saint. He was a drug addict. He had a prior conviction for a minor offense, and he tried to bribe an official.

"He was enticed into procuring drugs for an undercover agent, a woman. And she asked specifically that he turn the powder cocaine into crack," Love said, and crack rates a harsher sentence.

As Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford noted two years ago, if Aikens "had not cooked the cocaine (into crack), his sentence would have already run out by now."

Aikens and Aaron both deserved to do time for their crimes. But not 20 years, and certainly not life without parole. Not when Aikens is clean and sober and first-time nonviolent offender Aaron is a model prisoner.

It costs about $20,000 a year to jail each federal prisoner. That money is a bargain when it is used to incarcerate murderers, predators and criminal kingpins. It is a waste when used to warehouse human beings who mostly hurt themselves and pose little danger to society.

Frankly, it is not in the American spirit to throw people away for a generation or a lifetime for what, in the big scheme of things, are small crimes.

Mr. President, please free Clarence Aaron as a gift to yourself and to your country.