Clarence Aaron was a college student in 1992 when he introduced two dealers to each other. They paid him $1,500. Nine kilograms of cocaine were traded. A second deal didn't happen. Yet when the feds arrested the group, they charged Aaron with dealing 24 kilograms of crack cocaine, because one dealer was going to turn the cocaine into crack and the second deal had been set up. Aaron failed to cut a deal by pleading guilty and testifying against others. Aaron's sentence? Life without parole. That's right, Aaron wasn't in charge, he wasn't a professional dealer, he had been charged with a first-time nonviolent drug offense and he's serving the same sentence as the treasonous FBI-agent-turned-spy Robert Hanssen.
You might expect that sort of over-the-top sentence in the Middle Ages or some hellhole dictatorship that does not value human life. An enlightened nation, however, has no business locking up a kid and throwing away the key for life -- because he did something both criminal and stupid when he was, as Bush once described his early years, "young and irresponsible." I can't help but believe that if a white college kid had screwed up like this, unlike the African-American Aaron, he would have received a more fitting sentence.
Bush should commute Aaron's sentence this year, because it is the right thing to do. He also should work with the U.S. pardon attorney to release other prisoners serving sentences that far exceed their crimes. While in office, Bush has issued 97 pardons and two commutations. Two commutations are too few. Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, hears that the Bushies don't want to commute sentences that comply with guidelines, no matter how barbaric they are. "Why have a pardon attorney's office?" she asked rhetorically. "The Founding Fathers gave (the pardon) to the president for the very purpose of exercising it when the punishment doesn't fit the crime."
Read PBS Frontline's interview with Aaron.
The Supreme Court this week declined to review the case of Weldon Angelos, leaving in place his obscene sentence of 55 years in prison for small-time marijuana and gun charges. The high court's move is no surprise; the justices have tended to uphold draconian sentences against constitutional challenge. But it confronts President Bush with a question he will have to address: Is there any sentence so unfair that he would exert himself to correct it?
So far, Mr. Bush hasn't found one. He has commuted only two sentences, both of inmates who were about to be released anyway. Mr. Angelos, by contrast, is a young man and a first-time offender who is now likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. His crime? He sold $350 in marijuana to a government informant three times -- and carried, but did not display, a gun on two of those occasions. Police found other guns and pot at his house.
The U.S. district judge who sentenced him in Utah, Paul G. Cassell, declared the mandatory sentence in this case "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."... And in an extraordinary act, he explicitly called on Mr. Bush to use his clemency powers to offer what he as a judge could not: justice. Judge Cassell recommended that Mr. Bush commute the sentence to 18 years, which he described as "the average sentence recommended by the jury that heard this case."
Mr. Bush put Judge Cassell on the bench.... His exceptional discomfort with this case -- and his passionate plea for presidential mercy -- ought to carry weight even with a president so disinclined to use the powers the Constitution gives him to remedy injustices.