This is a simple truth: the United States is the only country in the first world that imposes life sentences to teenagers for small-time, non-violent drug offenses. In fact, the American legal system does so with alarming regularity, spending $40 billion a year to lock up hundreds of thousands of low-level dealers. The practice began when Ronald Reagan declared a "War on Drugs" in 1986, and has spread steadily since then. The following year, Congress enacted its federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, which automatically buried tens of thousands of low-level, non-violent drug offenders in the belly of the beast for decades—even for multiple life terms. Just ask Clarence Aaron, inmate number 05070-003.
At the age of 24, Aaron was sentenced to three life terms for his role in a cocaine deal. That's effectively three times the sentence imposed upon Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. Aaron was a student and football player at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He'd never been arrested. In 1992, he made the mistake of being present for the sale of nine kilograms of cocaine and the conversion of one kilo of coke to crack. Aaron would have earned $1,500 for introducing the buyer and seller. He never actually touched the drugs.
Though his role was minor, Aaron received the longest sentence of anyone involved in the conspiracy when he refused to cooperate with authorities. His case gained national attention in 1999, when he appeared in "Snitch," a PBS Frontline documentary about prisoners serving long sentences after refusing to turn informant. Since then, a loose, bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and civil rights activists have championed efforts to have President Obama commute his sentence. But it’s now 2012 and Clarence Aaron is still locked up, despite the fact that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office that tried the case and the sentencing judge have supported immediate commutation. US District Court Judge Charles Butler, who sentenced Aaron, recently wrote, "Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable."
To say the least. So what happens to a prisoner if the presiding judge states that a sentence should have been “more equitable"? Nothing. The Constitution provides the President with the authority to grant clemency to federal offenders, but Presidents, afraid of tarnishing their tough-on-crime credentials, have used clemency sparingly (and usually to help well-connected, politically-powerful prisoners, like Scooter Libby or Marc Rich). And so the federal prison population has exploded from around 25,000 prisoners in 1980 to almost 225,000 now, mostly because of the War on Drugs. Applications to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the branch of the Justice Department that reviews commutation requests, have reached thousands each year.
“The federal prison system has grown five-fold," says Michael Santos, a long-term prisoner who writes extensively about the prison system at michaelsantos.net. "Yet rather than granting clemency to five times as many people each year, the clemency process has been used less. Fewer prison sentences are commuted now than back when the prison system was smaller."
The executive clemency process has always been viewed by prisoners as a beacon of hope. But as recent news articles have reported, the pardon system represents a false hope; in fact, it is a sham process where the long line of rejected applicants illuminates the extraordinary and secretive powers wielded by the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
I should know. Like Clarence Aaron, I have been in prison for almost 19 years. I was locked up at the age of 22 for a first-time, non-violent offense and received a sentence of 25 years and four months for selling LSD and marijuana at East Coast colleges. When I was busted, my first move was probably not a smart one: I ran. Then I faked my suicide on the banks of the Potomac River and took to the ground. The US Marshal Service put me on its Top 15 Most Wanted fugitive list, even though I never carried a weapon or committed an act of violence. I was captured in October 1993, and have been incarcerated ever since, living my life inside the industrial prison complex, hoping that some law or proposal will change the circumstances of my imprisonment and allow me a chance at freedom.
That's probably not going to happen. Instead, now I'm looking forward to my scheduled release in 2015.
The fact is, I never applied for executive clemency, though I've done everything I can to rehabilitate myself. I have earned my Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees through college correspondence courses, and I managed to sustain a lasting relationship (I married my longtime girlfriend). I've written several hundred articles for magazines, websites and journals on prison life and on the people that I have met here.
Here's the real reason I have never applied for executive clemency: unlike Clarence Aaron, I actively sold drugs. I was only a small-time college drug dealer, but if Aaron can't get his sentence commuted, what chance do I stand? No matter what sort of success I have in prison, it's still in prison. We are judged differently.
Michael Santos says, "The type of clemency for which I am applying is called a commutation of sentence. The commutation petition differs from a pardon in that I am asking President Obama to forgive the remainder of my sentence. I am not asking him to forgive the crime for which I am convicted." And that would mean a lot for those of us who have been in for multiple decades as a result of the "War on Drugs." Don't forgive the crime we committed, but let us come home to our families and let us resume our lives.
While campaigning for office, President Obama was critical of the mandatory minimum drug penalties, and talked about second chances. Yet he is on track to be the least forgiving President in US history. He has pardoned just 23 people, including one commuted sentence. His current pace puts him firmly among the most conservative American Presidents to use these powers. So much for second chances.
Maybe Obama will do an about-face and charge his Pardon Attorney with the responsibility of taking these clemency requests seriously, instead of denying them summarily, as has been reported. He should be seeking out cases like Clarence Aaron, Michael Santos and even me. This will show that Americans and our government are concerned about righting wrongs and that they have the capability to show compassion to those who deserve it or have earned it.
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