Reprinted from Consortium News
The federal government's program to reduce prison sentences for thousands of federal offenders sentenced under draconian drug laws will fail to help almost anybody without the immediate intervention of the White House. In the meantime, thousands of federal drug offenders are stuck in a rut with no end in sight.
The Justice Department announced the Clemency Project in 2014 as a way for drug offenders to argue that their sentences are overly long, and that, if their crimes had been committed today, they would have been given significantly less time in prison. For many federal prisoners, this program is the only chance they have to have some semblance of a real life, to die outside prison walls, or to spend whatever time they may have left with family.
The criteria are that the prisoner must be currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; the prisoner must be a non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; the prisoner must have served at least 10 years of his sentence; the prisoner must have no significant criminal history; he must have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and he must have no history of violence prior to or during his current incarceration.
I spent 23 months in prison after blowing the whistle on the CIA's illegal and immoral torture program. During those 23 months, I made friends, many of whom were doing very long stretches for what seemed to me to be innocuous drug offenses. When the Clemency Project was first announced, it seemed too good to be true. I fear that as the end of the Obama administration nears, it may be.
Let me give you some examples of the people this program is supposed to help. My closest friend in prison was "Mark." Mark is in his mid-40s and is from Philadelphia. Back in the 1990s, Mark's stepfather taught him how to make high quality methamphetamine, which they and a group of cohorts then sold to a crime ring in the city. There were nine people in the conspiracy.
After about six months, Mark decided that this wasn't the life for him, and he voluntarily left the operation. He was the only person to do so. Mark went on to open a successful small business that employed a half dozen people, he got engaged, and he started to build a life for himself.
Years passed. Finally the FBI, DEA, and ATF swooped in and arrested everybody except Mark. He waited another year for the other shoe to drop and, finally, he was arrested, too.
Mark refused to testify against his co-defendants. He didn't realize that they had all agreed to testify against him. Eight of the defendants took pleas and got sentences of five and a half years. Mark went to trial, where he was found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine.
Despite the fact that he was the only defendant to leave the conspiracy, and despite the fact that he had the least involvement in the conspiracy, he was given three consecutive sentences of life without parole. That was later reduced on appeal -- to 30 years. This was for a first-time, nonviolent drug offender.
Mark has been in prison for more than 16 years. His record has been exemplary. He's earned a variety of certifications, he has a loving and supportive family, and he's never been in trouble. He can and should be a productive member of society. His only hope is the Clemency Project.
Mark's case is not unusual. There are thousands of people in our prisons like him. And many are in even worse situations. The Huffington Post recently reported on the story of Carlos Tapia-Ponce, a 94-year-old serving a life sentence for managing a cocaine warehouse. He has been in prison for 26 years and has twice been denied compassionate release for chronic health problems.
Even though he has also been denied release under the Clemency Project, his attorney is appealing the decision, and the application apparently will be reconsidered. If the Clemency Project is not for Carlos Tapia-Ponce, then who is it for? Is this 94-year-old man that much of a threat?
One question that the Justice Department -- and sentencing judges -- ought to ask themselves is, "Is society truly served by keeping these people in prison, in some cases for the rest of their lives?" I would posit that it is not. Society would be better served if these prisoners could work, pay taxes, tend to their families, and lead normal lives. Long sentences are punitive. They don't help "society" in any way.
As for the President, addressing draconian drug sentences is a great idea, even if it doesn't address the sentencing laws themselves. The Clemency Project has the potential to help thousands of people -- indeed, thousands of families -- rebuild their lives.
But it will only work if the Justice Department can process the applications. And that hasn't happened. A year after the program was announced, only two out of 30,000 prisoners had had their sentences shortened. By December 2015, the list of those whose sentences were commuted grew by only another 95.