A season for pardons

Posted: Dec 24, 2006 12:00 AM

On Thursday, President Bush commuted the prison sentence of Phillip Emmert, who was convicted on methamphetamine charges and sentenced to 22 years, followed by five years of supervised release in 1992. May a new era of compassionate conservatism be upon us.

Bush has used his commutation powers before. With Emmert's commutation and the 16 pardons issued on Dec. 21, Bush has issued 113 pardons and commutations while in office. This is, however, the first time that Bush has cut years from an offender's sentence, and a drug offender at that.

Margaret C. Love, who was the pardon attorney under the first President Bush, said of the Emmert commutation, "This appears to be exactly the kind of case where the president needs to intervene, and he is to be commended for doing it. But why only one after all these years? Given what we know about federal drug sentences, it is hard to believe that this case is the only one that merits a sentence reduction."

I, too, have criticized Bush for not commuting more sentences, but there is no denying how politically risky pardons can be. When he was Texas governor in 1995, Bush pardoned a man who had been convicted for growing marijuana in his back yard, only to see the man, who had become a deputy constable, arrested for stealing cocaine from a suspect within four months of his pardon.

In Emmert's case, Bush has put off his release until Jan. 20, and required Emmert to fulfill his five years' supervised release.

As a conservative, I think it is important that Bush is clear-eyed and has smart standards. I've seen those who would turn convicted cop-killer Mumia abu Jamal into a martyr. Ditto the executed Stanley Tookie Williams. Their most ardent advocates made excuses for their criminal actions and never seemed to care that these men took innocent lives.

According to the Washington Post, the Bush administration gives weight to a prisoner's "acceptance of responsibility and showing remorse" -- as well as the seriousness of the crime, how long ago it was committed, compelling need, post-conviction conduct and whether criminal-justice officials involved in the case support clemency.

Emmert's story fit those criteria. His history, provided to me by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells how Emmert rehabilitated himself in prison so that he was moved from a medium-security facility to a minimum-security camp.

One other aspect of Emmert's story -- the disproportionate and unduly severe sentence he received -- should be among Bush's criteria. Emmert had one prior conviction for driving without a license. A 22-year sentence for a low-level function in a first drug offense is insane.

America would be a better country if Bush were to commute sentences for other nonviolent drug offenders. Clarence Aaron was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1992, when he was 22, and will die in prison without intervention. That sentence is positively medieval.

This is not a drug case, but next month, two Border Patrol agents, Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos, will begin serving 12- and 11-year sentences for shooting a fleeing drug smuggler in the buttocks, not filing the necessary reports and depriving the smuggler of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure. Bush should commute their sentences before they report for prison. These two men have paid enough for their mistakes.

Readers frequently ask me what they can do to help win commutations for those serving draconian federal drug sentences. The time to act is now. Write the White House and let the president know you support his commutation of Emmert's sentence and you would like to see more. Show Washington there is political benefit in showing mercy.

To comment, e-mail comment@whitehouse.gov, or mail the White House, 166 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20500.