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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2003 / 28 Kislev, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Free the pusher | WASHINGTON When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush got burned for performing an act of clemency. In 1995, after local law enforcement officials supported one Steve Raney, Bush pardoned Raney, who had been convicted on a misdemeanor drug charge in 1988 for growing marijuana in his backyard. The pardon enabled Raney to become a deputy constable. Within four months of his pardon, however, Raney was arrested for stealing cocaine from a suspect during a roadside arrest. It was an embarrassing episode for the governor.

Today, no one would accuse President Bush of overusing his constitutional power to pardon federal criminals who have served their sentences but want a clean record. As Washington staffers enjoy the glut of glitzy holiday parties, too many prisoners are sitting in federal penitentiaries serving overly long sentences for non-violent first-time or minor offenses. They are victims of draconian federal mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

Clarence Aaron is serving a lifetime sentence for introducing two dealers when he was a Louisiana college student in 1992. Aaron had no prior record. He was a bit player. He had no history of violence. He has been a model prisoner. Yet, with no parole in a federal system where life means life, Aaron is facing a long life behind bars until he dies. His sentence is an outrage.

Yet the small community of activists and attorneys who are working for reforms in the law and pardons for inmates like Aaron have all but given up. The Bush administration has rejected more than 2,400 applications, according to The Wall Street Journal. The president has granted a mere 11 pardons to individuals who were convicted long ago. That's nice, but Bush has not commuted a single sentence.

There are more than 170,000 people in federal penal institutions, and yet not one sentence seems too long to President Bush.

Lawyer Margaret C. Love, who specializes in pardons, summarized: Bush "has decided there's no upside (in this) for him." So the bustle from groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums to win Christmas-time commutations is muted. Reformers expect to get more results from states with Republican governors than from the Bush White House.

The worst of it is: Everyone knows that federal drug sentences can be too harsh on low-level drug offenders. Federal judges and Supreme Court justices are speaking out against rules that make it difficult to shorten sentences for small fish. But Washington politicians won't fix what is broken — lest they look soft on drugs.

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In the past, I've called various federal officials and asked if they could tell me if there was a reason — something that wouldn't show up in a rap sheet — as to why Aaron's sentence was as long as that of Robert Hanssen, the FBI-agent-turned-traitor. They have no real answer.

The best anyone can say is that Aaron broke the law. (True, and thus Aaron deserved to serve time in prison. But it's also true that the feds enhanced Aaron's sentence by calculating the amount of drugs that might have been dealt — not the drugs actually dealt. Also, the feds lengthened Aaron's sentence by charging him for distribution of crack, when it was cocaine that changed hands.)

In truth, lawmen know that Aaron's long sentence has more to do with the fact that he failed to testify against other drug dealers — who were able to cut deals in order to reduce their sentences — than with the drugs themselves. All but one of the players around Aaron has been released from prison — despite prior arrests. The kingpin behind the Aaron deal served seven years and then was set free.

Aaron, then, is in prison for life, not to punish him for drug trafficking but for his silence.

Aaron's attorney, Gregg Shapiro of Boston, worries that the lesson Bush may have drawn from the Raney case is "not to grant anyone clemency. That's the wrong lesson because there are a lot of meritorious cases."

If a developing country issued this sentence for this crime, most Americans would call it barbaric. And they'd be right.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate