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Deb Saunders
Debra J. Saunders
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Free Clarence Aaron


The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Nov. 2 on the effort to petition President Bush to commute the sentence of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to accepting some $2.4 million in bribes. The president has the constitutional power to pardon federal offenders by wiping clean their prison records for sentences served or by commuting the sentences of inmates in federal prison.

Before Bush even considers such a request, he ought to take a long look at the thousands of petitions for a presidential pardon filed by inmates who have never served in elective office. He could start with the case file of Clarence Aaron, who at age 23 in 1992, while a student at Southern University at Baton Rouge, made the criminal decision to introduce two drug dealers, which resulted in a transaction involving 9 kilograms of cocaine.

Aaron broke the law and the fitting consequence for that is a serious prison stay. But because Aaron was a newbie to the drug trade and did not have the experience with the criminal justice system that would have led him to testify against the trade kingpins in exchange for a lighter sentence, and because his five co-conspirators knew enough to 'fess up and turn on him while he wrongly and stupidly denied any guilt, Aaron was handed the longest sentence in the group. He was a first-time nonviolent drug offender — but a judge sentenced him to life without parole.

Having entered prison as a young man, he will die there unless a president pardons him. There is something rotten to the core in a justice system that puts a twenty-something first-time nonviolent offender away for life, while meting out lighter sentences for career criminals who know how to game the system. Life without parole also is the same sentence imposed on FBI-agent-turned-Russian-spy Robert Hanssen, except that it is worse for Aaron, who was sentenced in 1992. Hanssen was arrested at age 56.

It turns out Aaron's most heinous offense was not the drug deal, but not having spent years getting arrested and learning how to roll through the criminal justice machine.

I know that I will hear from law-and-order types who will argue that all drug dealers should go away for life.

I do not think many would feel so sanguine about such a term for a white college student. (Aaron is black.) As it is, the world is not a safer place with Aaron behind bars. It is a poorer territory that throws away people because of a warped sentencing formula that ensnares the unwitting and spits out the truly dangerous.

Aaron, now 39, has admitted his wrongdoing and taken responsibility for the actions that put him behind bars. He has a clean prison record. In 2005, two wardens recommended that he be moved to a lower-security facility.

Bush has a pretty stingy record when it comes to granting presidential pardons and commutations. He has granted a mere 163 pardons — a figure far lower than President Ronald Reagan's 406 back when the federal prison population was much smaller.

No doubt, President Bill Clinton's sleazy fire-sale pardons on his way out of the office — which were roundly and deservedly criticized — have made Bush reluctant to use his absolute power of pardon.

Also, as Texas governor, Bush was burned when he pardoned a one-time misdemeanor drug offender so that he could work in law enforcement, only to watch Steve Raney be arrested for stealing cocaine during a roadside arrest four months later.

For all of the above reasons, critics in the pardon community pretty much have given up on Bush commuting Aaron's sentence. They have put their hope into clemency from President-elect Barack Obama, who has been critical of the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentencing system. They believe that Bush will reserve his pardon power for political operatives, and ignore excessive sentences imposed on the unconnected.

So far, the critics have been right. Last year, Bush commuted the 30-month prison sentence of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby because it was "excessive." But he has yet to commute the sentence of Clarence Aaron. Aaron should be spending this Thanksgiving and Christmas with his mother and his family. And only President Bush can make that happen.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at To find out more about Debra J. Saunders, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
Ma'am;... Clarance Aaron was black and dealing in the drug community which is like wearing a kick me sign on your back... Look who is injured here... The whole society has to keep a guy out of any productive employment and pay a huge price for doing so, and all to give a lesson to others who will never ever take it... For people to take a lesson there has to be a reasonable chance they will get caught, and two percent of many violent crimes get solved, which means a fraction of violent criminals get caught for all the crimes they do... It is the total frustration of a system that does not work, does not rehabilitate, and does not protect people, and does cost a lot of money that delivers outrageous sentences... To try to teach criminals a lesson by putting a handful in jail is like teaching a school of bait fish a lesson with a barracuda... We punish to an extreme, far beyond what individual crimes warrant, and it is unfair, and again, unproductive... Worse, it is a waste of resources because incarceration costs more than a college education, and college educated people are far less likely to commit crimes... It seems strange to threaten some people with prison when it may put them into the only society they have ever known, and may actually extend their life spans..It does not threaten the hard core criminal, but those who would never commit their first crime anyway... If criminals thought they were going to get caught, they might not do a fraction of what they do, but then, if people considered the odds they would never join an army, or charge into machine gun fire... No one thinks it will be them, and sending one to prison does not change that fact of human behavior... So, there ought to be some sense in sentencing. If you punished people for the damage they do, and the crimes they commit, it would be easier to get them back in society without a load of resentment... And we could concentrate on crime prevention, on all that works, like education, and opportunity...We know there are some crimes which are terrible in their consequences, and high in recedivism... Even there, the penalties should be so low that they do not encourage a worse crime, as when murder is added to rape; but not one of those people should be free ever of some supervision, and none should be on the street without some evidence supported by therapy that they are cured of their illness... It is so impossible to cure individuals of violence when there is so much support throughout society for violence, thinking that with rules it can be controlled... In fact, we need to redefine violence, even if it means that all actions without love are considered violent, so that violence is not a matter of speed, or kind of injury, or cause, or even effect; but of intent... Coersion is violence, and threat is violence, and prisons are violence, and poverty, for that matter, is violence, and no one should suffer these forms of violence without merit even at the hands of an outraged society. Society should teach the lesson it wants its members to learn... It should not be an expression of frustration because, wild, thoughtless force only teaches violence...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sun Nov 9, 2008 7:41 AM
Wish you would write more columns like these, Saunders. There are some things Bush could do to convince his maker he shouldn't burn in hell for eternity. This is one of them.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Sun Nov 9, 2008 12:58 PM
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