In December 2001, I wrote my first column urging President George W. Bush to commute the sentence of Clarence Aaron, a federal drug offender who, at age 24 in 1993, was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction. Aaron has been part of my holiday season every year since Bush left the Oval Office and Barack Obama succeeded him.
Aaron’s family had high hopes that the first African-American president would free an African-American inmate whose sentence so nonsensically exceeded his crime. The president has the unfettered constitutional power to commute federal sentences, yet Obama issued only one commutation in his first term. Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman Jr. rated Obama as “one of the most merciless (presidents) in history.”
On Dec. 19, 2013, however, President Obama issued a commutation for Aaron and seven other federal crack offenders “sentenced under an unfair system.” Aaron was released from federal prison in early 2014. For the first time in two decades, Aaron, 45, will spend Thanksgiving with his family.
What was Thanksgiving like in prison? The food was better than regular meals, Aaron told me Monday. The Alabaman now works at Atlanta Hot Wings six days a week and at least 10 hours per day. He’s working to get “some normalcy back” in his life. He took college and computer courses in prison. It would be great if he could find work that makes better use of those skills.
This week, I also talked to Amy Ralston Povah, who was sentenced to 24 years while her kingpin husband, who had cooperated with the feds, got no federal prison time. In July 2000, President Bill Clinton commuted Povah’s sentence and those of three other women who, a White House spokesman explained, “received much more severe sentences than their husbands and boyfriends.”
To date, Obama has commuted the sentences of 10 inmates, even though thousands of federal prisoners are serving draconian time for low-level offenses.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new clemency initiative for low-level nonviolent drug offenders. The American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and others have volunteered to help inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses apply if they’ve served at least 10 years and have good-conduct records. More than 25,000 inmates have applied for commutations since the Justice Department announced the project. Yet Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff has not announced a single commutation.
Before he was elected president, Obama was critical of federal mandatory minimums. “The thing you have to say about Obama up to this point is he still is a big bag of expectations. The prospect of him using the power has been dangled out there for years,” said Ruckman. “Up to this point, it’s still more dangling.”
The clock is running out. The longer the administration puts off using the pardon power the harder it will be to release, say, 10 percent — or even 1 percent — of applicants.
Oddly, at the very time Obama is grabbing power to revamp immigration law unilaterally, he is trying to outsource the rare power he has absolutely.
The Obama Justice Department should issue regular commutations that instill public confidence that authorities conducted due diligence.
The longer the president delays the more lame-duck pardons will look like a rush job. It will be too easy to do nothing.
Ruckman told me, “I’m going to really hate feeling critical of him if he does grant more commutations.” What is Obama waiting for?