Clarence Aaron is a victim of the war on drugs. In 1992, at the age of 24, Aaron received three life sentences in a federal prison for his part in a drug deal, though he was not the buyer, seller or provider of the drugs. That was Aaron’s first and only criminal offense. Twenty years later, only Aaron and the dealer of the nine kilograms remain behind bars. The dealer is scheduled to be released in 2014. Aaron is now waiting on a response to his third request for a federal commutation, hoping the Obama administration will grant him his freedom.
An article by ProPublica’s Dafna Lizner thrust the case of the now 41-year-old Aaron back into the spotlight. The case was first brought to the public eye in 1999, on a PBS documentary entitled “Snitch,” featuring prisoners serving long sentences after refusing to become informants. Two years later he would send in his first application for commutation. In the years since the war on drugs began, the process for commutation has been altered greatly. Under the Reagan and Clinton administrations, approximately one in 100 applicants for commutation was successful. However, as mandatory sentences for drug convictions went up, and the federal parole system was removed, the number of commutation requests shot up. Bush’s administration saw only 1 in 1,000 applicants granted commutation, and the rate under Obama is down to 1 in 5,000.
Aaron has fallen victim once again, as his case was glossed over not once but twice for commutation, the first time in 2004, and the next in 2008. Burdened with an ever-increasing volume of cases, the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney has struggled to investigate individual cases. Even in Aaron’s case, where both the prosecutor’s office and sentencing judge supported the commutation application, Pardon Attorney Ronald Rogers denied the request in 2008. In fact, Rodgers failed to reflect the views of the prosecutor’s office and judge, and simply resubmitted the same recommendation for denial written by previous pardon attorney Roger Adams, unchanged.
When confronted by ProPublica regarding the alleged improprieties in the handling of Aaron’s case, the Department of Justice refused to comment. Today, Clarence Aaron continues to serve his sentence in a medium-security prison in Talladega, Florida. His most recent petition for commutation was completed in April 2010; he is still awaiting a response. “If I was to be granted that commutation,” Aaron told ProPublica, “the president who backed me wouldn’t regret it, because I would work hard every day to prove my worthiness.”