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Julie Stewart Headshot

Any Hope Left for Clarence Aaron?

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President Obama's message of "hope and change" appealed to millions of voters in 2008. To a lot of families I work with, the idea of hope was extraordinarily powerful because when you have a loved one in prison, hope is not an abstract concept; it's what gets you through the day... and the next day, and the next.

Prisoner's families were desperate for change -- and had had their hopes raised before. When he was running for president in 2000, George W. Bush questioned whether lengthy sentences for first-time drug offenders were the best way to keep society safe. He talked about being a compassionate conservative who, informed by his Christian faith, believed in the power of redemption. There was no shortage of people looking for a second chance. For 20 years before Bush took office, mandatory minimum sentencing laws were helping to overfill federal and state prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.

President Bush had the opportunity to give some of those individuals who received excessive sentences a shot at redemption by using his constitutional authority to commute their sentences. For whatever reason, he blew it. Over the course of eight years, Bush commuted just 11 prison sentences, six times less than President Bill Clinton commuted. Families who were hoping to get a loved one home from federal prison a little earlier had little to celebrate.

Then along came candidate Barack Obama. As a state senator in Illinois and later as a candidate for president, Obama spoke out against mandatory minimum sentences, saying, "We have a system that locks away too many young, first-time, nonviolent offenders for the better part of their lives -- a decision that's made not by a judge in a courtroom, but all too often by politicians in Washington and state capitals around the country." He promised to act where Bush had failed "to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders."

Like so many of the families I talked to, I admit that I was very encouraged by candidate Obama's words. It was not lost on me that, as our first African American president, and the first chief executive to admit to using hard drugs in his youth, President Obama would have a better appreciation of the harm caused by mandatory drug sentences. My hope was vindicated when the Obama administration, upon taking office, supported elimination of the indefensible 100:1 powder-crack cocaine sentencing disparity, a policy that disproportionately devastated African American families and communities. Congress agreed that the crack sentences were excessive and reduced the disparity with cocaine sentences to 18:1 for future offenders.

Unfortunately, that reform came too late for many who were ensnared by the long crack sentences including Clarence Aaron of Alabama.

In 1992, Clarence Aaron arranged a meeting between two drug dealers. He was arrested and found guilty of conspiracy and held accountable for all of the drugs sold between the two dealers. Despite the fact that he was a first-time offender and had simply played matchmaker, the 23-year-old Aaron was sentenced to three life terms in prison. The absurdity of his punishment is not the most unusual thing about Aaron's case; there are other drug offenders serving life sentences. What's most unusual is that both the judge who sentenced him and the prosecutor's office that charged him have come out in support of a commutation of his sentence.

President Bush knew about Aaron's case and was interested in granting him clemency. Unfortunately, officials in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) misrepresented the views of the judge and prosecutor, and Bush did not grant relief.

President Obama knows about Aaron's case, too. He knows what happened to him and how the OPA undermined Aaron's shot at release during the Bush administration. Obama knows that because the Inspector General in his Justice Department issued a scathing report last year about OPA's misconduct in the case. Others, including conservative columnist Debra Saunders, have been publicly urging Aaron's release for more than a decade. President Obama certainly knows that, too.

Last year, Clarence Aaron's mother, Linda, came to Washington, D.C. to plead for her son's clemency. I confess that when I met with Ms. Aaron last year and learned about OPA's misconduct, I would have bet any amount of money that her son would be home by now. Why the confidence? In part, because I believed that no objective reviewer could think Aaron needed to serve a life sentence for his nonviolent crime. I had also learned about President Bush's interest in commuting his sentence until he was led astray by OPA. Finally, I was convinced because an unnamed administration official told a reporter for Pro Publica last summer "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his [clemency] power." Advisors said he planned to act whether he won or lost the election.

It's a good thing I'm not the betting type because I would have lost it all. President Obama did not exercise his clemency power between the election and his second inauguration. And, as of today, more than 1,500 days into his presidency, he has commuted just one prison sentence. His lack of mercy is stunning by any standard of measurement. Even counting the 17 pardons he granted last week to minor offenders, most of whom did not serve any prison time, President Obama's clemency record remains the stingiest of any president in modern history.

What makes the president's miserable record so stunning is that the blame rests solely and completely with him. Unlike so many of the other policy challenges he faces, when it comes to granting clemency, the president has sole, exclusive authority to do what he thinks is right. No blame can be heaped on an obstinate minority party. No excuse can be made about how bold action might harm a re-election campaign. No bureaucracy or court can stop him.

Clarence Aaron has been in prison for 20 years and the president has the power to order him released tomorrow. It is way past time for Clarence Aaron's mother to live on more than the thin gruel of hope dished out by the president. It is time to free Clarence Aaron, Mr. President.