Waiting on a Fix

Post Date: March 24, 2014

This new series from Al Jazeera America is loaded with great facts, infographics, pictures, personal stories and just plain good reporting. Here’s an excerpt from the “Imperfect Mercy” section of the series, featuring FAMM member Clarence Aaron:

Imperfect Mercy

For thousands of prisoners serving antiquated drug sentences now considered unjust, their last hope for relief is clemency from the president. The Obama administration is proposing to do just that – on a scale not seen in nearly 40 years. But are they ready?

Clarence Aaron says he had no idea how much prison time he could face until the day he was sentenced. A first-time offender, the college football star, who rose from the housing projects in Mobile, Alabama to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., thought he was looking at no more than 10 years for his role in a drug conspiracy — driving twice from Mobile to Houston to pick up cocaine, for which he was paid $1,500.

Instead, Aaron, then 24, received a triple-life sentence — more than anyone else charged in the conspiracy, though he was not the buyer, the user, the supplier or the dealer.

Prepared to pay with a few years of his young life, Aaron was stunned to learn he was going to die in prison.

“Only at the county jail, when it settled in, did I realize what I was faced with,” he says.

Since Aaron went to prison in 1993, lawmakers across party lines and government branches have gradually rolled back the measures associated with the tough-on-drugs era in which he was sentenced: inflexible mandatory minimums, broad and unfettered prosecutorial discretion and a disparity in how crack and cocaine were treated by the criminal justice system. The Smarter Sentencing Act, currently pending in Congress, would make some of these changes retroactive for thousands of inmates serving crack sentences. But many inmates who fall outside the act’s scope would not be helped.

The only way for Aaron to benefit from America’s rethinking of the drug wars was a long-shot — clemency.

But roughly 13 years after Aaron first petitioned for relief, on Dec. 19, 2013, President Barack Obama used his executive power to make a point, commuting the sentences of Aaron and seven others who were caught in what the president called the “decades-old injustice” of the crack cocaine sentencing disparities.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks, I couldn’t speak at that moment,” Aaron says of when he heard the news. “I was always praying but didn’t know it would happen. So many years had gone by.”

Read the rest of Clarence’s story and the entire piece.

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