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Obama commutes Clarence Aaron's sentence

Clarence Aaron, sentenced to three life terms for his role in a drug deal, is finally free after twenty years behind bars.
Clarence Aaron
Clarence Aaron

Clarence Aaron, a non-violent drug offender sentenced to three life terms when he was 24 years old, will finally be freed after twenty years behind bars. 

Along with seven other people serving time for crack cocaine-related offenses, President Obama commuted Aaron's sentence on Thursday, after a two-decade long imprisonment that might have ended sooner if not for a federal official mismanaging his case.

Aaron has been imprisoned since 1993 for his role in a crack cocaine deal. Though it was his first offense, and he was not the drug dealer, supplier or buyer, Aaron, who was 24 at the time, received a harsher sentence than anyone convicted in connection with the case.  All eight individuals granted clemency were sentenced under drug laws the penalized crack cocaine offenses 100 times harsher than powder cocaine offenses. That disparity was narrowed in 2010, when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the ratio of crack to powder sentences to 18 to 1 instead of 100 to 1. All of the individuals granted clemency Thursday have served more than fifteen years in prison, according to the White House.

Aaron's case, considered a strong candidate for clemency a decade ago, was ultimately mishandled by Ronald L. Rodgers, the Justice Department official handling his case, according to an Inspector General's report. Rodgers is now head of the Pardon Office at the Justice Department.

Reporting by Dafna Linzer, now the managing editor at msnbc digital, prompted the IG investigation into Aaron's case. The investigation found Rodgers had witheld key information when he advised the White House against granting Aaron clemency. Both the prosecutor's office and the judge who sentenced him had recommended that Aaron's sentence be commuted, information Rodgers left out of the application because, in the Inspector General's words, Rodgers' work was was "colored by his concern" that "the White House might grant Aaron clemency presently and his desire that this not happen." 

In his statement announcing clemency, President Obama said "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." 

According to ProPublica, Obama has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president.