Obama Commutes Sentences of Nonviolent Drug Offenders

December 19, 2013

In 1992, Clarence Aaron began serving three concurrent life sentences for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine — despite the fact that he did not buy, sell or supply the drugs, nor did he have a previous criminal record.

Today, President Obama commuted the sentence of Aaron, along with seven other inmates, saying they had been convicted under an “unfair system.”

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement. “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.”

FRONTLINE told Aaron’s story in the 1999 film Snitch, which explored how informants became a key part of prosecutors’ strategy in the war on drugs.

A 23-year-old college student from Mobile, Ala., Aaron was attending classes at Southern University Louisiana in Baton Rouge. Aaron agreed to introduce some of his high-school friends and his cousin, who were involved in selling drugs, to people he knew in Louisiana who were also selling drugs. He drove them from one city to the other and was paid $1,500 for his help.

When the friends were caught dealing drugs, they all, including his cousin, turned informant, and testified against Aaron. Each had a prior criminal record, and each would have faced life in prison. Aaron was the only one with no record and no hard evidence to convict him of a crime.

Under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in effect at the time, the lowest-ranking person in an alleged crime could be slapped with the maximum sentence, designed for a kingpin.

In 2012, President Obama ordered a review of Aaron’s case. The move came after ProPublica and The Washington Post reported that in recommending that the White House deny a clemency request, the government’s pardon attorney had misrepresented the facts of Aaron’s case, failing to disclose that both the prosecutor and the judge had recommended commuting his sentence.

Margaret Love, Aaron’s attorney, told The New York Times that her client was “absolutely overcome,” upon hearing the news. “He was in tears. This has been a long haul for him, 20 years. He just was speechless, and it’s very exciting.”

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