Obama Frees Clarence Aaron and Seven Other Drug Offenders Sentenced Under Old Crack Law



As J.D. Tuccille noted earlier this afternoon, President Obama issued eight commutations today, which is eight times the number he issued in the first 58 months of his administration. The best-known prisoner who will be freed as a result of today's clemency actions is Clarence Aaron, who was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in 1993 for his role in arranging a cocaine deal. Aaron's case received a lot of attention recently thanks to reporting by ProPublica's Dafna Linzer, who revealed that his clemency petition probably would have been granted by George W. Bush if the Office of the Pardon Attorney had not omitted important information from its evaluation.

Another commutation beneficiary, Stephanie George, received a life sentence in 1997 for letting her boyfriend stash his crack at her house. New York Times reporter John Tierney highlighted her case in a front-page story last December. Thanks to Obama's commutations, Aaron and George will both be released next April instead of spending the rest of their lives behind bars.

All of the prisoners whose sentences Obama has shortened (including Eugenia Jennings, whose petition was granted in 2011) were convicted of crack offenses prior to passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the 2010 law that reduced penalties for possessing and distributing the smoked form of cocaine. That law, which passed Congress almost unanimously, reflected a consensus that the old penalties were inappropriately harsh, but it did not apply retroactively. It should therefore be a no-brainer to shorten the prison terms of crack offenders sentenced under the old rules, which virtually everyone now agrees were unjust. Here is how Obama put it today:

This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late.  If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year. 

Families Against Mandatory Minimums estimates that 8,800 federal crack offenders are serving prison terms that could be shorter if they had been sentenced under current law. As of today, Obama has used his clemency power to help 0.1 percent of them.

Obama nevertheless deserves credit for acting, albeit belatedly and timidly, on his avowed belief that thousands of people in federal prison do not belong there. In addition to issuing these commutations, he has endorsed the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that would allow some crack offenders convicted before 2009 to seek shorter sentences. But as Obama demonstrated today, he does not have to wait for congressional action. It is completely within his power to free any federal prisoner whose sentence he deems unjust. If he exercises that power a little more, he will not be in danger of going down in history as the least merciful president ever.

Today's clemency actions put Obama's total at nine commutations and 52 pardons over 59 months, within striking distance (assuming he picks up the pace) of George W. Bush, who managed just 11 commutations and 189 pardons during his 96 months in office. But Obama still has a lot of work to do before can equal that notorious softie Richard Nixon, who issued 863 pardons and 60 commutations over 67 months.  

NEXT: Fake Mandela Memorial Interpreter Hospitalized

Clemency Sentencing Criminal Justice

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

Please to post comments

14 responses to “Obama Frees Clarence Aaron and Seven Other Drug Offenders Sentenced Under Old Crack Law

  1. Hopefully he does more stuff like this. Rand Paul commended him on Twitter for doing the right thing.

  2. The prosecutors in these cases must not be judges now or otherwise have the juice to keep Obama from screwing with their resumes.

  3. President Obama issued eight commutations today, which is eight times the number he had issued in the first 59 months of his administration.

    If he issued one previously, it’s “eight times the number.” If he issued none, it’s just eight more, because eight times zero is zero.

    1. Well, the last paragraph says his total is now nine. Happy now?

  4. “Obama nevertheless deserves credit for acting, albeit belatedly and timidly, on his avowed belief that thousands of people in federal prison do not belong there.”

    Yet he still throws people in prison for it.

  5. I bet George’s boyfriend is still rotting in the dungeons. Fuck this country and the freaks who set it’s public policy.

  6. Bow down and praise Him for His benevolence.

    Truly He is a blessing upon us.

    1. I will grant you he is upon us.

  7. Richard Wershe Jr is serving a LIFE sentence for one *non-violent* drug charge he received as a minor (17 years old) back in May of 1987. Three years prior Rick was recruited by Federal agents and Detroit police as a teenage undercover informant in Detroit’s dangerous drug underworld of the 1980s. Rick’s release is long overdue!!…..kjCD8c0_Mg

  8. Credit where it’s due, but he seems to be focusing on cases that got publicity. His statement includes a lot of self-stroking for being fair to these pre-sentencing-reform offenders, as if the problem were now solved.

    And there are injustices unconnected to the crack-powder disparity. He doesn’t have to wait for Congress to give him cover.

  9. If I were president, clemency would be the favorite part of the job. There’s so much injustice to be corrected by a mere stroke of the pen! And my pardon proclamations would explain the case for clemency to the public, giving people a peek inside the dysfuntional justice system and shaming Congress into making reforms. But I’d be able to act unilaterally, without Congress.

    I’d keep the Prime Minister of Bumistan cooling his heels in the waiting room while signing a stack of pardons and commutations. They’d have to drag me away.

  10. Sounds like some serious business dude.

    1. Why, hello, you spamming cunt.

  11. The commutation recipients also included Reynolds Wintersmith, of Rockford, Ill., who was 17 in 1994 when he was sentenced to life in prison for dealing crack.

    I live in Rockford. This is a good day. More like it please.

Comments are closed.