Today in an exercise of Executive Clemency, President Obama commuted the sentences of Clarence Aaron and seven other men and women serving harsh mandatory sentences under what the president described as an “unfair system” that included the disparity which punished offenses involving crack cocaine 100 times more harshly than offenses involving powder cocaine. The 100:1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity has been widely derided as unjust and disproportionately imposed on African-Americans who consistently comprised more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine defendants. It was substantially reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011 and now stands at 18:1.
All of the men and women who received executive clemency have served more than 15 years in prison, six of the eight had received life sentences. Clarence Aaron was sentenced at age 22 to life in prison for a minor role in a local drug deal. His real crime, refusing to ‘cooperate’ with prosecutors who wanted him to give state’s evidence in exchange for a lighter sentence. I remember clearly the first time I learned about Clarence Aaron’s case, he was featured in the 1999 Frontline documentary “Snitch”, which highlighted the ways mandatory sentencing provisions are used by prosecutors to coerce cooperation agreements from defendants – many charged as drug conspirators. Clarence Aaron was an example of what happens to a person who fails to cooperate, he was convicted on the basis of testimony by co-defendants and received three consecutive life sentences – an outcome that shocked a member of his jury who had no idea of the potential sentence.
Clarence Aaron has been in prison for 20 years, at 42, he’s spent almost as much of his life behind bars as he spent a free man. We can’t give him back the years he lost or the years lost by the other seven men and women who were victims of racially biased crack cocaine sentencing laws, but we can move affirmatively to reduce the injustice to future generations.
Reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses was a good first step, we need to revisit the policy of mandatory minimum drug sentencing and the widespread use of drug conspiracy provisions to ensnare vulnerable people tangentially involved in illicit drug markets in order to boost drug convictions and incarceration rates. Clarence Aaron was charged and prosecuted as a co-conspirator in a drug deal involving some friends and family members. His principal involvement was driving his friends to meet some folks from whom they then bought drugs. It was never alleged that Clarence Aaron bought drugs, used drugs or had any drugs in his possession but under the federal drug conspiracy provisions being charged as a co-conspirator makes you accountable for any and all drugs that may be involved in the criminal activity and thereby subject to the same sentence as a principal actor. Think of it this way – you drive your buddy to a secret rendezvous with his/her lover and now you’re charged with their infidelity. Doesn’t seem right or fair?
Throughout the country scarce police resources are devoted to hunting down and locking up people involved with drugs while the folks who raid our pension funds, pollute our environment, bankrupt our cities and subvert effective government, act with impunity, safe in the protection that comes with privilege. Equal justice under the law should mean just that – equal justice, for all. There are thousands of others serving long prison terms for crack cocaine offenses, they deserve to come home too.