On Thursday President Obama commuted the sentences of eight individuals sentenced to life in prison, or more, for non violent drug crimes and granted full pardons to 13 others. The commutations reduced the sentences drastically since 6 of the eight were serving life sentences, all of them will have been released from prison by April of next year.
Observing that these men were serving racially discriminatory sentences because of laws distinguishing between crack and powder cocaine the President issued a statement which said in part:
Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
He also noted that if these men had been sentenced under the current laws they would have all finished serving their sentences before now and that in several cases the presiding judge had expressed his frustration that the law required him to hand down a sentence that was more harsh than the crime warranted.
One of those pardoned was Clarence Aaron, a true poster boy for the injustice of these draconian laws. He was a low level player in a drug deal, his part was to introduce the two dealers who were the main players but because they had better legal representation they dealt their way into much shorter sentences while making Aaron the scapegoat. He drew three life sentences for his minor role in the deal.
He was then the victim of a botched clemency application by an inept attorney. He then became the subject of ProPublica exposés, on both the ineptitude of his U.S. Pardons attorney and of the racial discrimination in the pardons process, drawing support from such disparate quarters as PBS and Fox News.
Reynolds Withersmith, who was a teen when he was arrested on a crack cocaine conspiracy charge and Stephanie George, were two others pardoned, both were serving life without parole. The judge who sentenced George did so under protest saying that her primary role in the deal was as, “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.”
Yet another of those pardoned, Ezell Gilbert, was over sentenced, perhaps by as much as 13 years but the courts had cited procedural hurdles to be overcome as a reason for not correcting his sentence.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently announce initiatives designed to reduce the number of these unfair sentences for minor offenses. The plan is to avert these lengthy sentences by relaxing prosecution on low-level offenders thereby avoiding mandatory guidelines coming into play, as well as declining to prosecute for marijuana offenses as long as the offenders are complying with state law.
“[T]oo many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said.
While the announcement on Thursday acknowledged that there is a disparity between the sentences for different forms of cocaine, the President said that it should not stop with these reforms and pardons. The President said,
“In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress.”
Congress currently has two bills in the Senate Judiciary Committee which will be a step toward that end. One the Smarter Sentencing Act, would shorten sentences for those already in prison by making the shorter sentences retro active. The other is aimed at prison reform.
h/t: Think Progress