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December 23, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Column: Land Of The Second Chance

By Debra J. Saunders

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In this year's State of the Union speech, President Bush extolled America as the "land of the second chance." It's a crying shame that his record granting presidential pardons and commutations -- only 31, with the four pardons announced this week -- belies that generous sentiment.

At the heart of the issue is how this country chooses to treat people who have broken the law.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some 39 percent of high-school seniors said they had used drugs in the previous year. Most of them won't get caught and most will go on to become productive citizens. Some of them will become involved in drug dealing, and some will go to prison.

The average sentence for a federal inmate is now 50 months, double what it was 20 years ago, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

America's war on drugs has taken an ugly turn. Federal mandatory-minimum sentences have become so warped that some first-time nonviolent drug offenders are serving sentences longer than those that violent killers often serve.

I realize that some readers have no problem with sentencing first-time nonviolent drug offenders to decades behind bars. They don't differentiate between violent career criminals and young people with murky futures who embark on a path more dangerous to themselves than to others.

The lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd doesn't notice the people around them who committed crimes, but then became positive forces within their community.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pardoned on Wednesday three such men -- one convicted of burglary and driving under the influence of drugs, another for two counts of selling a controlled substance, and the third for possession of marijuana for sale and transportation of a controlled substance decades ago. All three served their time, then turned their lives around.

Bush has cleared 31 ex-cons' records by issuing pardons -- that's less than half the 77 pardons issued by his one-term father. The number of federal prisoners now stands at a record -- more than 180,000 -- yet Bush has commuted but two sentences.

A first-time nonviolent offender named Clarence Aaron is sitting in an Atlanta prison sentenced to life without parole, that is, life until he dies a natural death without taking a another breath as a free man. Aaron has served 11 years of his sentence -- yet Bush has not lifted a pen to free him.

Then there's Chrissy Taylor, who at age 19 was sentenced to 19 years and seven months for buying legal drugs for her 35-year-old boyfriend's illegal drug operation. As the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums writes, Chrissy "was barely an adult when this happened, and she will be 36 years old before she gets any kind of second chance."

Unless the president frees her.

When Bush was running for re-election, his low pardon record was at least politically understandable. In the last two decades, presidents and presidential hopefuls only have been hurt when they've used their clemency power. Bush too was burned: As Texas governor, he pardoned a man with a misdemeanor drug charge, only to see the man re-enter the justice system as a deputy constable who was arrested for stealing cocaine.

Re-election is no longer a factor for Bush. And because the Department of Justice is big enough to screen applicants thoroughly, Bush needn't worry about releasing the wrong convict.

"When you think of the enormous good that could be done with the (pardon) power, and what the (constitutional) framers thought about it as a test of presidential mettle and integrity, you can see that it is a truer measure of presidential courage than almost anything else the president does," Margaret C. Love, the pardon attorney under Presidents Bush pere and Bill Clinton, wrote on the Sentencing and Law Policy blog.

Mary Price of FAMM figures "we could probably come up with 40 names" for Bush of inmates whose sentences should be commuted.

San Diego attorney Sam Sheldon helped win a pardon for first-time nonviolent offender Serena Nunn, whom President Clinton pardoned in July 2000. Instead of completing a 16-year prison sentence, Nunn graduated from Arizona State University with honors and "just finished her second year yesterday" at the University of Michigan.

"The people I worked with didn't believe me," Sheldon said when he warned them about draconian federal drug sentences -- and they were lawyers. They didn't come around until Nunn's judge signed a letter urging that her sentence be commuted.

Now Nunn is about to become an attorney. She got her second chance -- thanks to President Clinton.

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