Overdue mercy for low-level drug offenders

When Barack Obama ran for the White House in 2008, federal inmates and their families believed that if he won, miracles would follow. They were convinced that the former law professor and critic of federal mandatory minimum sentences would be liberal with his unfettered constitutional power to free low-level and nonviolent offenders sentenced to decades, even life without parole, behind bars.

Then, for the next five years, criminal lawyers and reformers stood around scratching their heads, wondering why Obama held the worst pardon record of any modern president. He commuted one sentence in his first term. When Obama was re-elected in 2012, they hoped he would open the gates. In December, a small door opened. The president commuted the sentences of eight crack offenders, all of whom had served at least 15 years.

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement that promises big change. Holder said the Department of Justice will adopt a “new and improved” approach with a bigger team “committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.” Expect the new team to seek out nonviolent, low-level drug offenders with clean prison records.

Sam Morison, a former staffer in the pardon attorney’s office, fears that the new clemency project will be a “technical exercise that only an expert in the federal sentencing guidelines can appreciate.”

But Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums is ecstatic. For years, the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney has served as an “office of no” that has rejected cases of clear sentencing overkill.

In 2012, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General informed the department that pardon attorney Ron Rodgers had withheld vital information that probably would have led to a commutation for Alabaman Clarence Aaron, a first-time nonviolent drug offender serving life without parole. (Obama commuted his sentence in December.) Rodgers has to go.

Holder expects thousands of petitions. Drug lords should expect no favors, as the department should be looking for girlfriends, wives and low-level drones sentenced to decades in prison.

Think Stephanie George of Florida, whose boyfriend stored cocaine in her house. She got life; he got less than 15 years. Judge Roger Vinson didn’t believe George’s claim that she didn’t know about the half-kilogram of powder. But he saw her as merely a “bag holder and money holder” who did not merit a sentence of life without parole. However, he had to impose that sentence on her anyway.

Vinson later told The New York Times: “The problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable. So they get reduced sentences, while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.” Obama commuted George’s sentence last year, but there are others like her.

Like the president, Holder prodded Congress to reform federal sentencing laws. I’m all for that. But it’s also important that Holder work to change the culture within his department. If there’s a common element in cases of sentencing abuse, it’s a federal prosecutor who over-charges low-level offenders for the crimes of their higher-ups, who cut deals.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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