Outgoing President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons of fugitive financier Mark Rich, Whitewater figure Susan McDougal and assorted other well-connected FOBs (Friends of Bill) grabbed the headlines, but with the clock ticking down on his presidency, Clinton also granted clemency to 21 drug war prisoners. With this action, only some 450,000 people remain behind the razor wire on drug charges.
Most of the drug offenders whose sentences were commuted had received assistance from prisoner advocacy or sentencing reform groups such as the November Coalition (http://www.november.org) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (http://www.famm.org), as well as clergy-backed campaigns such as the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency (http://www.cjpf.org/clemency/).
The push by clemency supporters included a last-minute Capitol Hill press conference on January 16th, just days before Clinton's term expired. Attended by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson (D), who has become an outspoken proponent of drug policy reform, as well as activists such as FAMM founder Julie Stewart, members of the clergy and prisoners' family members, the press conference was a call to Clinton to use his pardon power in his administration's waning hours.
"President Clinton, during these last hours of your eight-year term... please take a stand against the waste and injustice of our destructive sentencing laws," Anderson said. The Salt Lake City mayor called federal sentencing guidelines far more severe than merited for minor drug crimes and said action by Clinton could be the first step to changing them.
"We must stop this insanity. We must stop this inhumanity," Anderson said. Much better to "commit our resources to prevention programs that really work, to good public health education, and to treatment programs," he averred.
Some Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), weighed in on the side of clemency as well. In a letter to President Clinton released at the press conference, they called for clemency for hundreds of nonviolent, first-time drug offenders.
"President Clinton has one last opportunity to end the meanest, least human, least justified aspect of our federal criminal justice system: the outrageous, excessive jailing of nonviolent people who have harmed no one," said the letter. "These people and their families should no longer be martyred by the demagogic politics of an illogical drug policy."
Anderson took the opportunity to continue his campaign to free Utahn Cory Stringfellow, 31, in his sixth year of a 15-year, 8-month sentence on LSD charges.
"Five and one-half years is long enough for Cory to have spent in prison for his foolishness as a young man. For him to serve another 10 years would be wasteful, cruel and incredibly unjust," Anderson said.
Mobile, Alabama, resident Linda Aaron took her turn to ask for freedom for another prisoner, her son Clarence. Clarence Aaron, 31, whose case has been profiled in the 1999 PBS documentary "Snitch," was a 23-year-old college student when he transported cocaine for acquaintances involved in selling the drug. Aaron refused to plead guilty and cooperate with federal prosecutors, who, after using the testimony of the group's ringleaders against Aaron, managed to convict him on a second try. Aaron got a life sentence; of those more deeply involved who testified against him, none got more than eight years.
Wiping tears from her eyes, Linda Aaron told the press conference her son made a mistake, but did not deserve to spend the rest of his life in prison.
"All I ask is, just give him another chance and let him live his life," she said.
Clarence Aaron didn't make the list. Neither did some other high-profile prisoners, such as Cristine Taylor, who is nearly halfway through a 20-year sentence for buying methamphetamine precursor chemicals for her boyfriend when she was 19. Nor did President Clinton act on the group of some 487 "safety valve" prisoners, who could be serving shorter sentences or out of prison altogether if they had been sentenced after Congress adjusted federal drug offense sentencing in September 1994.
Activists and prisoners' families expressed mixed feelings about the commutations.
"The families are thrilled to have their loved ones home, and so are we," the November Coalition's Nora Callahan told DRCNet, "but this handful of commutations didn't have anything to do with justice or mercy. If they did, people like Cristine Taylor and Clarence Aaron would have been released."
FAMM spokeswoman Monica Pratt had similar sentiments. "It's been a very bittersweet week for us," she told DRCNet. "We're thrilled, but it also brings to mind the thousands of other people sitting in prison with these egregious mandatory minimum sentences."
Cory Stringfellow did make the cut (although because of a state sentence on a related matter, he could remain behind bars until May 20th). His father, Burton Stringfellow, too, took time amidst his expressions of relief and joy to remember those left behind.
"We owe President Clinton a heartfelt 'thank you' for commuting Cory's sentence," the elder Stringfellow told DRCNet, "but we grieve for the other people who also should have gotten commutations."
Stringfellow, who is now the head of the Utah FAMM chapter, continued, "We think we were deserving, but so were many others. We feel bad for them, because we know how we would have felt. We have to continue our work and we think we are at a real beginning point."
Cory Stringfellow benefited not only from the intervention of Mayor Anderson, who specifically called on Clinton to grant clemency to Stringfellow, but from some more surprising quarters as well.
"[Utah Republican Senator] Orrin Hatch called the White House about two weeks ago, and talked to the chief of staff," relayed Stringfellow, "and asked him to press Clinton to commute Cory's sentence. Hatch called back to say he did it, and he called back Tuesday to congratulate us."
Head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hatch has rarely met a draconian sentence he didn't like.
"He also told us he really respects Rocky, that he thinks he's an honest man," said Stringfellow.
"Sen. Bob Bennett (R) was also sympathetic when Utah FAMM met with him in July," Stringfellow continued, "but so many people played an important role. Jerome Moody, our attorney, who is on the FAMM advisory board, wrote the application for clemency; we had Catholic Bishop George Neiderau writing letters in support, we had Little League coaches and Scout leaders."
"But Rocky was crucial," concluded Stringfellow.
The November Coalition's Callahan shares the Stringfellow family's joy, but she also expressed frustration with a process where those least able to help themselves are left behind.
"If these commutations were about fairness, it would have reflected who is in the prisons -- predominantly poor people of color," Callahan continued. "Many of the people who got commutations this time were white people, and I can verify that these were people who had support on the outside, from people like us, but also from politicians saying 'let them go.'"
"How do people with no one on the outside stand a chance?" she asked.
Monica Pratt of FAMM doesn't think the commutation process is where such social inequities will be redressed, though she is less certain whites got favorable treatment in this round of pardons.
While Pratt could not supply precise figures, she said "a number of cases, a majority, I think, were African-American or Latino."
"But we have to focus on changing the laws, so the punishment fits the crime," she told DRCNet. "With these commutations, it's like reading tea leaves -- you just can't tell who is going to get one and who isn't. Yes, being a FAMM member has helped some people, but we recognize that commutations aren't a cure-all."
"We're extremely thankful that Clinton did those commutations in the final hours, but now the burden rests on the shoulders of the new Congress to do something about this," Pratt said. "The message that we want to send is that this gives prisoners and families alike hope that change is coming. We just need to redouble our efforts to find a way to end these mandatory minimums."