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by Dr. Boyce Watkins
A man’s life was ruined when the US Pardon Attorney failed to communicate critical information to the White House about his case for sentence commutation. All of this according to facts released by the Justice Department Inspector-General in a 20-page report.
It all involves the case of Clarence Aaron, who was given a triple life sentence for introducing two people who engaged in a drug deal. Because facts were hidden and due to irresponsibility by those who have power within the legal system, Aaron has been in prison since 1993. He was sentenced at the age of 24.
According to the report, pardons attorney Ronald L. Rodgers engaged in “conduct that fell substantially short of the high standards expected of Department of Justice employees and the duty he owed the President of the United States.”
Rogers may be led to pay a price for his neglect. The Inspector-General’s Office said that it would report its findings “to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for a determination as to whether administrative action is appropriate.”
Fortunately, the Inspector General has the good sense to order additional investigations to find similar cases that contain such blatant misconduct on the part of Rogers or anyone else in his office. Rogers didn’t support Aaron’s release, which allegedly led him to withhold key information from the White House about the man’s case. But Aaron’s case for commutation had already received strong support from the prosecutor’s office in Mobile, Alabama.
Kenneth Lee, associate White House Counsel in 2008 when Aaron’s case came forth, said that he would have supported the commutation had he seen all the evidence.
Various organizations are calling for Rogers to resign from the pardons office, including my own. I had a meeting this morning with FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, to discuss our partnership with Russell Simmons to address the mass incarceration epidemic. When I heard about the case of Mr. Aaron, I became sick to my stomach. The idea that a young man lost his life due to bureaucratic arrogance should not be tolerated by any of us.
Additionally, for every Clarence Aaron, there are hundreds of other faceless Americans who suffer under the thumb of mass incarceration. Families are destroyed by this Draconian (and racist) sentencing epidemic, and the reduction of the crack-to-powder disparity has not even been applied retroactively to those who were sentenced under laws of the past. This problem not only leads to increases in crime due to all of the children growing up with parents in prison, but it’s costly to our society as well.
President Obama knows that the War on Drugs was an abysmal failure. He is also aware that the power of the presidential pen can do wonders for changing the lives of countless numbers of American families. In spite of this, the president is inexplicably fearful of granting commutation or clemency, even in cases where the punishment surely does not fit the crime. I think that in this country, we’ve lost the understanding of what the word “justice” actually means.