Twenty years ago, Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., received three life prison terms for his role in a drug deal. On Thursday, President Obama commuted his sentence and those of seven others, seeking to undo some of the damage stemming from a time when the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine convictions reached 100 to 1.
In 2010, Congress approved legislation repairing part of the damage. Lawmakers narrowed the disparity for future cases. Yet that leaves a significant segment of the federal prison population serving time for past offenses under a sentencing regime now deemed unfair and wrongheaded.
Earlier this month, the judges on the federal appeals court in Cincinnati split over the question of what to do. A narrow majority held that, regrettable as the circumstances are, the current law leaves no room for remaking sentences to reflect the current understanding.
A minority of the judges did explore the real potential for viewing the harsh terms as now violating the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The best option calls for Congress to get back to work. Lawmakers already have decided the sentences are unjust. Now they must make the law retroactive, acting as the president did to repair the harm.