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November 25, 2005 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Free Clarence Aaron

By Debra J. Saunders, SF Chronicle

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ON SEPT. 28, President Bush issued 14 presidential pardons -- raising the total of pardons he has issued to 58, plus two sentence commutations. White House spokesman Ken Lisaius noted, "The president has now granted more at this stage in his administration than President Clinton did at this point during his."

True. But the quality of the Bush pardons is lacking. High numbers of prisoners are serving time in federal penitentiaries -- more than 150,000 -- and sentences for first-time nonviolent offenders can exceed a decade. Yet Bush has failed to put his faith where it is needed most.

For years now, I've been writing about Clarence Aaron, a first-time nonviolent offender who, because he facilitated two large cocaine deals between two drug dealers, was sentenced to life without parole.

At age 19, Chrissy Taylor was sentenced to 19 years in prison for buying legal drugs for her boyfriend's illegal drug operation.

Bush should commute the sentences of Aaron and Taylor so that they can become productive members of society.

I believe in being tough on crime. I support the death penalty and long sentences for repeat offenders and violent criminals.

That said, I have to agree with those who argue that, barring extraordinary circumstances, no nonviolent offender should serve more than five years for a first offense. (And the extraordinary circumstance should be more serious than the fact that the defendants didn't plead guilty or provide evidence against other parties.)

There is such a thing as being smart about crime, and that means giving people who screwed up a chance to turn their lives around before they reach middle age.

Look at the September pardons -- all issued to individuals who completed their sentences a decade or decades ago. Adam Wade Graham served less than one year for conspiracy to deliver 10 or more grams of LSD; he was sentenced in 1992.

Larry Paul Lenius had been sentenced to 36 months in 1989 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Larry Lee Lopez was sentenced to three years probation in 1985 for conspiracy to import marijuana.

Margaret Love, who was the pardon attorney for President George H. W. Bush, observed, "It seems to me that the list of people who were pardoned reflects a philosophy of punishment that the federal system seems to have abandoned. These people served reasonable sentences, which gave them an opportunity to turn their lives around."

While Love is heartened by the fact that Bush now issues pardons on a regular basis, she hasn't seen him redress federal sentencing outrages, or make any heroic decisions: "The ones who are making it are so uniformly unremarkable that it makes you wonder what principle of selection is at work here."

In fact, you get the feeling that the Bushies have read the criticisms of Bush's stinginess with the pardon and responded by issuing more pardons, but for the least urgent cases. Critics noted Bush had commuted no sentences, so Bush commuted two sentences.

Editorials compared the Bush record to that of his father and President Clinton -- so Dubya squeaks past the Clinton record of 56 pardons and commutations in his first five years. It's as if the administration doesn't want to be criticized for meting out too little mercy -- so it throws mercy where it is least needed.

Indeed, last year, Bush pardoned a man convicted of food stamp fraud in 1994 -- who had died the year before.

In his 2004 State of the Union speech, Bush proposed a program to help released inmates find jobs and establish lives that work within the law. Bush noted, "America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."

Clarence Aaron has served more than a decade for a first-time nonviolent offense -- and all he has to look forward to is spending the rest of his life behind bars. Personally, I don't think Aaron would face a future without freedom if he were white, not black.

The only person who can give Aaron a second chance is President Bush. The good news is that Aaron's petition is still pending -- it has not been rejected. The bad news is that Bush has the power to grant mercy and a second chance to Aaron and others like him -- but he is afraid to use it.

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