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November 23, 2006 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Column: Pardon More Than The Turkey

By Debra J. Saunders

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AFTER the GOP took that thumpin' in the November elections, President Bush wants the voters to give his party and his leadership a second chance. That makes this a good time for Bush to use his presidential pardon power to give others a second chance. This holiday season, Dubya should not limit his presidential pardon power to one lucky turkey.

Thanks to draconian federal drug sentences, the number of federal prisoners reached a record 193,989 on Nov. 9 -- that's a steep increase from 150,000 in 2003. The prison population is not growing because the feds are locking up drug kingpins.

As the U.S. Sentencing Commission noted in a 2002 report, while the 1986 federal drug law promised to go after "serious" and "major" traffickers, the majority of federal cocaine offenders performed low-level functions. The percentage of biggies behind bars is shrinking, while the low-life chump class grows.

In 2000, the commission reported, the proportion of importers/high-level suppliers shrank to 1.4 percent of the cocaine offenders, down from 8.8 percent in 1995; the proportion of organizers/leaders fell from 12.7 percent in 1995 to 5.3 percent. It is another sign of too-big government, when taxpayers have to bankroll long sentences for the least culpable criminals.

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."

Politically, Bush could use pardons to show that he cares about people who live outside the GOP circle. Let Bush show America the president who boasted in his 2004 State of the Union speech that America is "the land of the second chance" that he walks the walk.

Commutations also would appeal to libertarian-leaning Republicans who recoil at drug-war excesses. These are voters who harken to the words of the late economist Milton Friedman, who wrote in an open letter to then-drug czar Bill Bennett in 1989, "Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike."

As for law-and-order types, who don't mind throwing other people's children behind bars for life, Bush can use mercy to appeal to those voters as well.

Last month, a federal judge in Texas sentenced Border Patrol agents Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio Ramos to 11 and 12 years in prison for shooting a fleeing drug smuggler in the buttocks, not filing the necessary reports and depriving the smuggler of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure.

That's an insane sentence for two men who worked in service to this country and made a split-second mistake. Bush should commute their sentences before either man has to report to prison.

Let me be clear: I support long-sentences for violent criminals and repeat offenders, as well as the ultimate sentence -- lethal injection -- for repeat killers such as Clarence Ray Allen and Stanley Tookie Williams, who rightfully were executed in San Quentin Prison.

But I cannot countenance meting out the harshest sentences to people who can be redeemed and have something to contribute to society. Clarence Aaron has served enough time behind bars. Bush should set him free.

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