It seems like Washington is enjoying a rare political Kumbaya moment these days. Both Democrats and Republicans now agree that our justice system ran off the rails with overly burdensome, mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.
These convicts include Antwon Rogers of Cleveland, 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 age 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, Ky., also got life after his conviction for possessing more than 1,000 marijuana plants that were 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 oversentenced, nonviolent drug cases.
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.
The Obama administration started the ball rolling during President Barack Obama’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 prevalent in inner-city, minority neighborhoods, the latter often consumed by wealthier, white clientele.
In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued new sentencing guidelines instructing prosecutors to steer clear of charges against nonviolent drug defendants that would result in over-the-top sentences.
And now, 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.
The plan is already in motion. Last December, Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders.
In 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 Obama 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, Fla., 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?”
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 and full of danger and sometimes forces inmates to act in noncivilized ways just to survive.
Will those whose sentences are commuted to time served leave prison better citizens? 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 is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.