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Molly M. Gill Headshot

Fixing the 'Façade of Concern'

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How could President Obama serve justice, show mercy, and correct appalling wrongdoing by a government official -- all without the approval of Congress?

He could commute the sentence of Clarence Aaron, a model prisoner and first-time, nonviolent drug offender serving life without parole in federal prison for a stupid decision he made 20 years ago. Commuting Aaron's sentence should be one of the easiest decisions President Obama ever makes, especially because Aaron's commutation, supported by his judge and prosecutor, was derailed during the last administration by current U.S. pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers.

Recent reporting from ProPublica's Dafna Linzer reveals that in 2008, the White House, lacking positive recommendations for commutations from the pardon attorney, looked through denied applications and found Clarence Aaron's petition. The White House asked for a new review of his case. Rodgers misrepresented key facts about the prosecutor and judge's support for Aaron's commutation to then-associate White House counsel Kenneth Lee. Those misstatements led the White House, which had been very interested in the case, to deny Aaron's petition. Aaron reapplied; that application has been pending at the pardon attorney's office since 2010.

Unfortunately, this case is only a symptom of a much deeper infection. At a panel at the National Press Club last week, Linzer and Sam Morison, an attorney who spent 13 years at the pardon attorney's office, described how that office has abandoned its mission of providing unbiased, objective advice to the president on each case. The office recommends that virtually every commutation request -- no matter how unjust the sentence or deserving the applicant -- be denied. Staff jokingly nicknamed the pardon attorney's office the "Façade of Concern," Morison said.

Data support Morison's claims. During the Bush administration, the pardon attorney gave favorable recommendations in only six of 8,600 commutation requests; in three of those, the prisoners had only a few months remaining on their sentences. In the last four years, 7,000 requests have been denied, at the rate of seven petitions a day. Most cases, Morison says, never get an individualized, meaningful review.

Linda Aaron, Clarence's mother, was on the panel with Morison. When she learned that her only son might have received a commutation but for Rodgers' misconduct, she said she was "devastated. ... I could not believe it. How could a person do that to a human being? It could have been his child."

Reacting to the news of Aaron's botched commutation and problems at the pardon attorney's office, dozens of criminal justice, civil and religious organizations sent a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees urging a full investigation into the pardon attorney's misconduct. Representatives John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Robert "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) have written to President Obama, asking that he order Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations and commute Aaron's sentence if they are true.

Why wait? Aaron's sentence has been unjust since the day it was imposed. President Obama can fix that injustice -- and reward two decades of rehabilitation -- with an immediate commutation. He should also reform the ailing pardon attorney's office so that it serves his interests and the interests of justice. Aaron and thousands of others like him have labored under a façade of concern long enough.