By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, New York Times, December 22, 2013
President Obama’s decision on Thursday to commute the outrageously long drug sentences of eight men and women showed a measure of compassion and common sense. But it also served to highlight the injustice being done to thousands of prisoners under federal sentencing laws.
In issuing the commutations, Mr. Obama blamed the “unfair system” that is keeping thousands behind bars solely because they were sentenced before August 2010, when Congress reduced the vast disparity between the way federal courts punish crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The three-year-old federal law, the Fair Sentencing Act, allows prisoners to petition a judge to shorten their sentence, but it does not apply to nearly 9,000 prisoners who were already serving time when it was passed. While Congress is considering legislation to make the law retroactive, any such fix is far from assured.
In addition, thousands more federal drug prisoners are serving unjust sentences for other reasons, including mandatory minimums that punish anyone connected to a sales or trafficking operation based on the overall weight of the drugs, regardless of how minor a role that person played. For many of these people — including Clarence Aaron, who received three life sentences for a first-time, nonviolent drug deal, which Mr. Obama commuted — there is no prospect of helpful legislation on the horizon. Their only hope is executive clemency….
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