Clarence Aaron has sat in prison for almost 20 years. He was sentenced to three life terms. One might ask, “What horrific crime did he commit to warrant such a harsh sentence?” Actually, in comparison to many crimes, Aaron’s s crime was relatively minor. He introduced someone to a drug dealer he knew from school, and he was there when a deal for nine pounds of coke went down. He definitely committed a crime, but does the punishment he received fit the crime? And, if Aaron received such a severe penalty, the kingpins in this case must have been sentenced even more harshly, right? Wrong.
Drug War Chronicles reports that Aaron got the longest sentence of all those convicted in his case, despite his small role in the drug conspiracy, because the other defendants cooperated with the government, and he did not. That brings to mind a recent case in which a 56-year old grandmother was sentenced to life without parole for her minor role in a drug case. The ACLU reports that because Elisa Castillo was such a minor player she did not have information to trade to the feds, so she, like Aaron, was sentenced to far more time than her co-defendants.
But unfair sentences can be corrected, although in the federal system that is not likely to happen. In order for a prisoner to get a commutation of his or her sentence, the prisoner must first navigate a lengthy procedure requesting that the President of the United States commute that sentence. Busy with other problems, the president relies on the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to recommend if a prisoner receives a commutation of sentence. And therein is the problem.
According to the Drug War Chronicles, investigations show that Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers, who rejected Aaron’s request for commutation under the presidency of George Bush, “failed to convey critical information about his request to the Bush White House, including recommendations from the US Attorney and his sentencing judge that his application be granted.” Rodgers ignored US District Court Judge Charles Butler, Jr. who strongly recommended that Aaron be granted a commutation of his sentence. Instead, Rodgers did not notify Bush of the recommendations of the judge and prosecutor, and therefore Aaron still sits in federal prison. There may be a ray of hope, however. The Drug War chronicles reports that a White House attorney that is working on Aaron’s case said that if he had seen the paperwork from the judge and prosecutor he would be inclined to commute Aaron’s sentence.
Allegations that pleas for commutation or a pardon are summarily denied “en masse” are at the forefront of a call by organizations such as FAMM and The Sentencing Project to revamp the Office of Pardons. Clarence Aarons is certainly not the only person who was denied a pardon or commutation. Under President Obama only five pardons and one commutation were granted in 2011. Perhaps vital information was once again left out for consideration. Or, maybe hundreds were, in effect, rubber-stamped “Rejected” without serious investigations of the merits of the applications.
On May 6, 2011 Reentry Central published a letter to President Obama from the anguished daughter of Gillian Van deCruize, who at that time, spent 16 years of a 19 year sentence, and was by all accounts, a model inmate. Van deCruize submitted several applications for a sentence commutation over the years. She too, had a recommendation from her prosecutor that her sentence be commuted, and like Aaron, she too was denied every time.
Beside the millions of dollars that can be saved by commuting the sentences of deserving inmates, lives that are being wasted behind bars can also be saved. Children can be united with their parents. Communities destroyed by America’s penchant for mass incarceration can begin to rebuild. A step in that direction calls for an overhaul of the Office of the Pardons Attorney. Applications for commutations of sentences or pardons should be read thoroughly. Recommendations by judges, prosecutors and others promoting the applicants’ requests should be carefully considered. Equally important is that those recommendations should be duly noted and sent to the White House for consideration, and not squirreled away and forgotten as happened in Aaron’s case. The call for President Obama to investigate Rodgers and the office he presides over is getting louder and louder.
Source: Drug War Chronicles Issue 735 May 24, 2012