Easing Prison Overcrowding – Who Wins Early Release and Who Doesn’t?

by Diane Dimond on March 21, 2016

California Overcrowding Among the Worst

California Overcrowding Among the Worst

It’s easy to understand the intent behind the current move to reduce prison overcrowding but are we sure we’re doing it right?

In 2010, when President Obama signed The Fair Sentencing Act to reduce federal prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders he specifically targeted those who had been convicted of crack cocaine crimes. In the past, anyone in possession of crack — an inexpensive drug most often used in poor black communities — was routinely sentenced to harsher penalties than those who had dealt in the more expensive powder cocaine that was used almost exclusively by more affluent whites.

Once the 2010 law went into effect the sentences of inmates convicted of crack related crimes were recalculated to make them more like today’s sentencing guidelines.

Wendell Callahan, Charged in Triple Murder

Wendell Callahan, Charged in Triple Murder

This was great news for Wendell Callahan, a “non-violent” crack dealer serving 12 ½ years in federal prison in Ohio. Callahan was released 4 ½ years early, officials citing his “good behavior” while in prison.

Guess no one thought Callahan’s previous conviction in a 1999 non-fatal shooting incident mattered, nor an earlier drug case. And no one red-flagged the violent domestic abuse charges filed against Callahan by his ex-girlfriend, Erveena Hammonds, in 2006.  Callahan was released from federal prison on August 8, 2014.

Police say a few weeks ago, on January 18, 2016, Callahan stormed into Hammonds’ apartment and stabbed her to death. Then, in an apparent move to erase eye-witnesses Callahan did the same to Hammonds’ two young daughters, ages 10 and 7.

Reported Callahan to Police in 2006

Hammond Reported Callahan to Police in 2006

This is not to condemn The Fair Sentencing Act but to beg those who decide which convicts get out early to be damn sure of their background and character first.

Late last year, some 6,000 federal inmates won early release. That was just the first wave of President Obama’s initiative to allow up to 46,000 convicts to take part in the largest prisoner release in American history.

Sad to say, Ms. Alice Johnson didn’t win a spot in this clemency lotto.

Alice, 60, mother of five, grandmother to two girls and two boys, currently resides at the Federal Correctional Institute located in the coincidentally named Aliceville, Alabama.

Johnson is a Prime Candidate for Clemency

Johnson is a Prime Candidate for Clemency

She was a first time offender back in 1996 but still sentenced to life in prison for her part in a cocaine conspiracy ring. Alice takes full responsibility for what she did all those years ago. But what she did was little compared to the actions of her 10 co-defendants. They turned state’s evidence against Alice to get lighter sentences for themselves.

Alice says she worked for Fed Ex for 10 years (7 in management) and held other responsible jobs to help feed and clothe her children. But times were tough and she admits she became a “go between” in the criminal enterprise, passing phone messages to those who were actually selling the drugs. That was twenty long years ago.

Since her incarceration Alice has been an exemplary prisoner, becoming an ordained minister and serving as a mentor and tutor for other inmates. She also writes faith-based plays and urges other inmates to participate in her prison theatre productions.

Tretessa Johnson Wants Her Mother Home Again

Tretessa Johnson Wants Her Mother Home Again

Alice’s daughter, Tretessa Johnson, tired of hoping someone in the justice system would realize her mother deserves mercy after all this time. So three weeks ago she started an on-line petition for Alice’s release. At this writing nearly 70,000 signatures* have been gathered. Several U.S. Congressmen support early release for Alice, as do several pastors, celebrities and prominent community leaders. If and when she is ever free again Alice says she will work with ex-offenders to help them find jobs.

“I am positive that I will be the one to make a difference because I have been one of them myself,” she says.

Alice is the type of inmate we should be releasing, not the Wendell Callahan types.

Alice and Friends Who Act in Her Prison Plays

Alice and Friends Who Act in Her Prison Plays

Alice is not alone in meeting the early release criteria but remaining seemingly invisible to those who review requests. The most recent data shows of the more than 30,000 applications received about half are stuck in the under-staffed bureaucratic pipeline. The clock is ticking since review of a single clemency petition can take more than a year and President Obama leaves office in January 2017.

My hope is two-fold. That those who might follow in Wendell Callahan’s footsteps are weeded out quickly and truly deserving applicants, like Alice Johnson, get noticed in time.

Truly repentant convicts are of much more value to society on the outside.



Diane Dimond March 23, 2016 at 9:32 am

Facebook Friend Jeffrey Warren Hughes writes:

“I still think the mild ones (record wise) could do community or state road service; the mean ones could do wartime service…they do good, they get out early. Also, now that dope seems to be legal all over the place, how about releasing the people on dope charges?”

Diane Dimond March 23, 2016 at 9:33 am

Facebook Friend Lyn Novosel writes:

“Totally not fair. I do not get the justice system in this country. So different to my native United Kingdom.”

Diane Dimond March 23, 2016 at 9:37 am

Port St. Lucie News Reader Danny Kresky writes:

“I just read your article in local paper here in Port St. Lucie, Fl.

Regarding this I am not happy about what Obama did to release Crack dealers. Those with possession only is okay to give them a break. But not to dealers !!!! These are truly bad people. Letting out those busted for possession on marijuana charges I can fully understand. Marijuana is considered a medical herb and not a mind boggling drug to cause one to steal $ to get more. Crack does that.

But the reason for me writing you is you comment ………”In the past anyone in possession of crack- an inexpensive drug most often used in poor black communities-was routinely sentenced to harsher penalties than those who…………………….

You could not be more wrong. You don’t understand how this drug works. Yes you can buy one rock for $10 or $15 but that is not where it stops. That is where it begins. This stuff is so addictive that dealers will voluntarily give a potential buyer a free “rock”. Why ? To get him or her started. Once they take a hit and like it which almost 95% do they cannot stop until they run out of money. If they buy one rock for $10 and they have $400 in their pocket, they will spend all their money until it is gone.

This is not an in-expensive drug. I know people who went through hundreds of thousands of dollars using crack. The notion that crack is in-expensive is totally incorrect. You are not the first person to use that term as well.

And since I have your attention the one other thing that Obama did that really gets me upset was his “bailing out” the banks. He should have given the money to homeowners to help pay for the homes they were being foreclosed on. Instead he gave it to the banks and then the banks got the house as well. I recall reports that some of those that got bailed out and were responsible for losing a fortune, took million dollar bonuses amid this disaster. That was horrible.”

Danny Kresky

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