The Presidential Clemency Push – Are We Ready?

by Diane Dimond on July 13, 2015

Pending Bills Don't Have to Be Passed to Help Vets

Suddenly, Agreement – But Have They Thought Things Through?

Seems like Washington is enjoying a rare political Kumbayah moment these days. Both Democrats and Republicans now agree that our justice system ran off the rails with overly burdensome, mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.

Convicts like Antwon Rogers of Cleveland Ohio who was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine — less than 5 ounces of the drug. But because Rogers had two previous drug convictions the mandatory federal three-strikes law kicked in and, at the age of 22, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He’s been there more than 20 years.

Francis Hayden of Loretto, Kentucky also got life after his conviction for possessing more than 1,000 marijuana plants, growing on a farm he managed. Hayden also had two previous drug convictions and that third one sealed his fate.

If space permitted I could cite thousands of these over-sentenced, non-violent drug cases.

Francis Hayden to be Released Early

Lifer Francis Hayden to be Released Early

Today, there appears to be unified political resolve to fix the problem and, thereby, help ease the prison overcrowding that plagues both the federal prison system and lock-ups in nearly every state. There also seems to be agreement to repair a system that has handed out much harsher sentences to black and brown defendants than to white ones.

Theresa is Among Those With Commuttd Sentences

Theresa Brown is Among Those Set Free

The Obama Administration started the ball rolling during the president’s first term when he signed a law reducing the sentencing gap between those caught with cheaper crack cocaine and those who dealt in powder cocaine. The former being much more widely prevalent in inner city minority neighborhoods, the latter often consumed by more wealthy, non-minority clientele.

In 2013, the president’s Attorney General issued new sentencing guidelines instructing prosecutors to steer clear of charges against non-violent drug defendants that would result in over-the-top sentences.

And now, Mr. Obama is reportedly poised to commute the sentences of more and more low-level drug convicts who, if they were sentenced today, would never have gotten the draconian punishments they got years ago.

Mr. Obama Wants to Right Sentencing Wrongs

Mr. Obama Wants to Right Sentencing Wrongs

The plan is already in motion. Last December, the president commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders. This March he awarded commutations to 22 more (eight of them were serving life sentences) and they will all leave prison at the end of this month. They were chosen out of the thousands who had applied for the new clemency program because, as the president put it, they had, “demonstrated the ability to turn their lives around.”

But how many of these released prisoners will be headed for the straight-and-narrow as Theresa Brown of Pompano Beach, Florida seems to be? She was serving life after being connected to a cocaine conspiracy. Her attorney said she was a, “very, very small time street-level dealer,” whose own addiction led her to fall prey to a big-time drug dealer who was both mentally and sexually abusive. Brown had broken away from him and was in rehab when she was arrested.

During Brown’s more than 20 years in prison she has been a model prisoner and in a letter to her sentencing judge she wrote, “I am rehabilitated … allow me to help society with the programs that are out there for the youth of today … How would they know there’s a better way? How would they know unless someone is sent to tell them?”

Some Non-Violent Prisoners Have Served Too Much Time

Some Non-Violent Prisoners Have Served Too Much Time

But can we all just take a breath here?  One thing never mentioned as this drive to right the wrongs of the past rolls on:  What happened to these prisoners while they were locked up?

Federal prison is not an instructive or nurturing place. It is crude, ugly, full of danger and sometimes forces inmates to act in non-civilized ways just to survive. Will those whose sentences are commuted to time served leave prison a better citizen? Did the prison in which they were held provide continuing education or job training? During their years (and sometimes decades) of imprisonment did they receive instruction on how to live a constructive life on the outside? And what’s been done to help those whose addictive personalities got them in trouble in the first place? Federal prisons are not known for stellar rehabilitation efforts.

I really don’t want to rain on this feel-good campaign. Many convicts who received these harsh sentences deserve some relief. They are certainly ready to get out of prison. But are we ready to help them create better lives for themselves?

I don’t think so.



Diane Dimond July 13, 2015 at 10:29 pm

Facebook Friend Linda Rabe writes:

“Around here violent prisoners are released frequently. Something’s seriously wrong with our judicial system. Even police are upset that they catch the bad guys and the courts let them go.”

Diane Dimond July 14, 2015 at 10:57 am

Facebook Friend Daniel Thomas Moran writes:

“The terrible irony is that the government has made these people criminals because of drug laws that are patently dumb and counter-productive. It has been said by many before me that people are going to smoke and drink and use mind-altering chemicals just as they have since we lived in caves. People whose lives get damaged by misuse and abuse have a medical problem that calls for treatment. Sell the stuff, regulate it, tax it, get it out of the dark corners of American life, undo organized crime, gangs and all kinds of street crime, and save billions of dollars we spend on taking harmless people from their families and putting them into horrible institutions where they will become criminals and really make trouble when they get out.”

Diane Dimond July 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

Daniel – I couldn’t agree with you more! And I write about legalizing drugs frequently.
Like here:

Diane Dimond July 14, 2015 at 10:58 am

Facebook Friend Fred Mizzi writes:

“Yes its a group of people who think they have a better idea then there predecessor s just like they say you cant spank your kids see how thats working?”

Diane Dimond July 14, 2015 at 11:01 am

Twitter Pal MaggioMatt writes:

“@DiDimond- Longtime inmates aren’t suited for release in this economy – so lacking in jobs that can keep anyone out of turning to crime. “

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: