President Obama commuted the sentences of eight crack-cocaine offenders Thursday, including that of Clarence Aaron, who was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction when he was 23.
Aaron's story represents the worst excesses of the federal criminal justice system. Aaron, of Mobile, Ala., had no criminal record. He had held jobs. In 1992, he was a college student who decided to address his money problems by acting as an intermediary between two career drug dealers. The dealers paid him $1,500 to set up two large cocaine deals. They got caught. The ringleaders knew how to game the system. They pleaded guilty and testified against Aaron.
Aaron wasn't as savvy. He pleaded not guilty and lied on the stand, which enhanced his sentence. The buyer planned on converting powder cocaine to crack. That, too, enhanced Aaron's sentence. One deal didn't happen, but federal prosecutors still charged Aaron for it anyway. Voila, he received the same sentence that was imposed on FBI agent-turned-Russian spy Robert Hanssen and now-deceased serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Aaron knows he broke the law. He had earned prison time. What does it say, though, when federal prosecutors seek and win life without parole for a first-time offender while letting the big fish finagle lesser sentences? All but one of Aaron's cohorts have been out of prison since 2000.
Aaron's cousin, Aaron Martin, called the commutation made this season "the best Christmas ever." Lawyer Margaret C. Love said, "We are grateful to President Obama."
In 2001, I began hectoring President George W. Bush to commute Aaron's sentence. Mr. Bush asked his pardon attorney to reconsider the petition, but the official misled him, failing to inform him that the judge and the U.S. attorney had come to support Aaron's petition, so the president said no.
When Mr. Obama was first elected, Aaron's family was convinced that America's first black president would free Aaron, who is also black. During the first term, their hopes were dashed. Until Thursday, Mr. Obama had commuted only one sentence, that of crack-cocaine offender Eugenia Jennings, in 2011; Jennings died of leukemia in October. Finally, on Thursday, it happened.
"Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system" that was reformed three years ago under the Fair Sentencing Act, Mr. Obama said in a statement. "Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison. In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime."
According to the White House, six of the inmates whose sentences were commuted were serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
It's about time. Drug-war critics have been waiting for commutations ever since Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. told the American Bar Association in August that "certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
Political science professor P.S. Ruckman Jr., who hosts the Pardon Power blog, had rated Mr. Obama "one of the most merciless [presidents] in history." On Thursday, Mr. Ruckman observed, "I don't think that changes his record that much." With nine acts of clemency, however, Mr. Obama is approaching the 11 commutations granted by Mr. Bush.
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that close to 2,000 nonviolent offenders are serving life without parole in federal prisons.
"If we were reading about this stuff and it were in another country," noted the head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Julie Stewart, "we'd be saying, 'Oh, my God, they're putting away people for life for nonviolent offenses.'"
It is amazing how many liberals will support Mr. Obama's reticence to use his clemency power. "Willie Horton," they chime — noting that Republicans made former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis answer for the furlough of a murderer who raped a woman during an armed robbery after he was furloughed. Horton was ineligible for parole and should not have been given a weekend pass.
Aaron has no record of violence. He has a clean prison record. He has taken responsibility for the actions that led to his prosecution. His family wants to help him establish a productive life.
During a 2002 phone call from prison, Aaron told me he could not believe that in America, a young man could be condemned to spend the rest of his life behind bars for a stupid criminal, but nonviolent, decision.
"These people literally would have died in prison without this act of compassion and mercy by the president," Ms. Stewart noted. "He will not regret it."
Indeed, I think Mr. Obama will feel so good about these commutations, he'll do it again soon.
Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.