By Julie Stewart, President and Founder, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)
Executive clemency serves an important function in any justice system. However, in a justice system as flawed as ours – a system in which countless people serve excessive mandatory prison sentences – clemency takes on an even greater importance and urgency.
Recent articles jointly published by ProPublica and The Washington Post reveal deeply disturbing conduct in the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) at the Department of Justice that hurts not only those who apply for clemency in the form of a commutation of sentence, but also all who aspire to a justice system that actually bestows justice.
Clarence Aaron’s story is detailed by Dafna Linzer in the ProPublica piece. Though a 23 year–old, nonviolent, first-time offender, Mr. Aaron received three life sentences without parole in federal prison for arranging two meetings between a cocaine seller and a cocaine buyer. He has already served nearly 20 years and has been a model prisoner. He earned the support of both the U.S. Attorney and the judge who handled his case, but this vital information never made it to White House attorney Kenneth Lee or President George W. Bush. According to Linzer’s research, current Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers “failed to accurately convey the views of the prosecutor and judge and did not disclose that they had advocated for Aaron’s immediate commutation.” Mr. Aaron’s petition was denied.
Sadly, Mr. Aaron’s story, while tragic, may only be a symptom of a much larger problem. Linzer’s research confirms what Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has suspected for years: It appears that commutation applicants are denied with little or no meaningful review. Even those who have demonstrated extraordinary rehabilitation and reform while incarcerated and who pose no real public safety threat remain behind bars.Barbara Scrivner, for example, has served 18 years of a 30-year sentence for her minor role in a nonviolent methamphetamine crime. Her commutation petition was denied despite having the support of the U.S. Attorney, the judge, and a congressman. If someone with that kind of support can’t get clemency, what does it take?
The president – and only the president – has the power to grant a commutation. However, Congress can – and must – exercise its oversight power to ensure that the Office of the Pardon Attorney, for which taxpayers foot the bill, is operating effectively and honestly, and providing the president with sound, unbiased advice. Congress has a responsibility to all American taxpayers and to those who seek justice through the commutation process to investigate the OPA.
The call for change is getting louder – earlier this week more than three dozen groups signed a letter calling on Congress to investigate the Office of the Pardon Attorney in light of the disturbing revelations of misconduct. Congressmen John Conyers and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott sent a letter to President Obama asking that he direct the Attorney General to investigate OPA’s alleged mishandling of Mr. Aaron’s case. This Thursday at the National Press Club, FAMM will moderate a panel that includes Linzer; former OPA attorney Sam Morison; Clarence Aaron’s mother, Linda; and two commutation applicants – one successful, one not – who will discuss how this system has broken down.
Commutations didn’t used to be so rare. Prior to 1980 – before the “tough on crime” era and the War on Drugs, with all its mandatory minimum prison sentences, kicked into high gear – presidents granted commutations with relative frequency. It’s time for Congress to act to figure out what’s going on in the Office of the Pardon Attorney and why countless deserving petitioners remain behind bars.