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Righting Historical Wrongs Through Clemency

Nkechi Taifa, Special to The Informer | 2/28/2014, 8:19 p.m.

Luckily for Kemba Smith, she became the poster child for the abolition of harsh mandatory minimum crack-cocaine penalties, and she, along with many others, had her sentence commuted at the conclusion of the Clinton presidency. When Smith walked out of prison, however, she left behind thousands of men and women who were likewise convicted under the egregious 100-to-one crack-cocaine law and who also deserved a commuted sentence. President Clinton’s drug commutations and the publicity surrounding them helped lead to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the disparity from 100-to-one to 18-to-one (which is still not what I would call “fair”), but left intact the sentences of those who were already incarcerated. This left a huge class of people still in prison under a discriminatory law — a law that was now no longer in effect. It was wrong that the disparity lasted nearly a quarter of a century and equally wrong that it did not extend to those incarcerated before its passage.

2003. Outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan granted clemency to the state’s 167 death-row prisoners, commuting most of their sentences to life and pardoning four who he felt had been wrongfully convicted. This move came partly as the result of hearings investigating the brutal techniques carried out against African-American suspects in a Chicago police department from 1972 to 1991. The hearings included testimonies of torture involving electric shocks, use of cattle prods on genitals, suffocation with plastic bags, and other atrocious practices on suspects to make them confess. Many were convicted and placed on death row. Because of scandals such as this, Ryan concluded that the legal process surrounding capital punishment had become so corrupted in Illinois that clemency for all those on death row was the only remedy.

Today. Seventeen years after the Clinton-era drug commutations, former college student Clarence Aaron was one of eight drug offenders whose harsh sentence was commuted by President Obama last December. Despite being a first-time offender, Aaron received three life sentences at age 24 for his role in a cocaine deal in 1994, in which he was not the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs. Instead of dying behind bars, he now has the chance for a productive life. The Obama crack commutations, however, represent the tip of the iceberg of cases left behind when the Fair Sentencing Act became law. The president, signaling his desire to correct this injustice, stated:

Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system. … Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last.

Presidents have always had the power to correct miscarriages of justice and impact future policy through the executive clemency power. President Kennedy sought to relieve the impact of lengthy mandatory minimum narcotics laws from the 1950s through sentence commutations. President Ford addressed the sensitive issue of the convictions of Vietnam-era draft-dodgers by establishing a review board to vet appropriate cases for possible commutation. President Carter used the clemency power to offer draft-evaders amnesty as a way to heal the wounds from the controversial Vietnam War.