Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 8:56 pm | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 

Diane Dimond: Stark Differences Between Alice Johnson, Wendell Callahan in Early Prison Release Saga

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 Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce federal prison sentences for nonviolent 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, which 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.

This was great news for Wendell Callahan, a “nonviolent” crack dealer serving 12½ years in federal prison in Ohio. Callahan was released 4½ years early, with officials citing his “good behavior” while in prison.

 

Guess no one thought Callahan’s previous conviction in a 1999 nonfatal shooting incident mattered, nor did 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 Aug. 8, 2014.

Police say that earlier this year, on Jan. 12, Callahan stormed into Hammonds’ apartment and stabbed her to death. Then, in an apparent move to erase eyewitnesses, Callahan did the same to Hammonds’ two young daughters, ages 10 and 7.

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 Obama’s initiative to allow up to 46,000 convicts to take part in the largest prisoner release in U.S. history.

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

Johnson, 60, mother of five, grandmother to two girls and two boys, currently resides at a federal correctional institute located in the coincidentally named Aliceville, Ala.

She was a first-time offender back in 1996 but still sentenced to life in prison for her part in a cocaine conspiracy ring.

Johnson 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 her to get lighter sentences for themselves.

Johnson says she worked for FedEx for 10 years (seven in management) and held other responsible jobs to help feed and clothe her children.

However, 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 20 long years ago.

Since her incarceration, Johnson 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 theater productions.

Her daughter, Tretessa Johnson, got 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 online petition for Johnson’s release.

At this writing nearly 70,000 signatures have been gathered. Several U.S. congressmen support early release for Johnson, as do several pastors, celebrities and prominent community leaders.

If and when she is ever free again, Johnson 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 Johnson is the type of inmate we should be releasing, not the Wendell Callahan types.

She is not alone in meeting the early release criteria but remaining seemingly invisible to those who review requests. The most recent data show that of the more than 30,000 applications received about half are stuck in the understaffed bureaucratic pipeline.

The clock is ticking, since review of a single clemency petition can take more than a year, and Obama leaves office in January.

My hope is twofold: that those who might follow in Wendell Callahan’s footsteps are weeded out quickly, and deserving applicants like Alice Johnson get noticed in time.

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

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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