Yesterday, President Obama did something I thought he should have started doing in 2010 after he signed the Fair Sentencing Act to limit the harsh mandatory minimum sentences associated with low-level crack cocaine offenses. Progress was made then and now 5 years later, he is trying to make a statement in a big way. He commuted the sentences of 46 people with drug offenses in federal prison. This is something that wasn’t too much of a shocker because I have been working with several criminal justice organizations including NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Clemency Project 2014, The Sentencing Project, FAMM, ACLU, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others in this clemency effort ever since President Obama has been in office. We’ve had monthly conference calls, panel discussions at CBC, submitting editorials to national publications, lobby days and briefings on The Hill, today, I finally have a renewed sense of hope.
Early in 2014, Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked attorneys around the country to help the Department of Justice (DOJ) find men and women serving time for non-violent, low-level offenses and it was stated that there may be a possibility that President Obama will grant mass commutations before he goes out of office. When I heard of the news, I admit, I was skeptical due to his track record with commutations and no other President has exercised their power like that concerning people with drug offenses. Today, I stared at the TV with the CNN headline at the bottom of the screen reading, “President Barack Obama commutes sentences of 46 drug offenders.” My response was “Thank you Jesus! They are getting a second chance, too!” I am so grateful that President Obama is beginning this process. I’ve read some comments and it amazes me how ignorant people can be without knowing each individuals circumstance or taking the time to find out. Even though I am free, I can’t help, but take some comments personally.
After I got the news, my next thought was who are the 46 people?Was Michelle West, Danielle Metz, Santra Rucker or Ramona Bryant one of them? These are women who I was incarcerated with, all of whom have non-violent offenses, all of whom are mothers, all of whom have served over 15 years, all of whom were originally sentenced to LIFE! I know that since the Obama administration announced last year that it would grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, more than 35,000 incarcerated people — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened. YES 35,000!!! Granted, I am not so liberal to believe that all those people should go home, but I know that President Obama won’t be able to free all of those who deserve a second chance at life. Even though there has been a big push with minority male incarceration rates, don’t forget that the female prison population in the United States continues to grow at an alarming rate. The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse…Large-scale women’s imprisonment have resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration, which is tearing families and communities apart.
So when I googled to find out whose sentences were commuted, out of the 46 people, only 5 were women! My emotions spiked. In the next dozens batch of commutations, the majority of them need to be women! Women who can be reunited with their children and families! All of the women whose sentences were commuted by Clinton, Bush and Obama, none of them have gone back to prison! Like my friend Michelle West, stated in a letter to Maxine Waters, Clemency is supposed to be an act of mercy, now it has been turned into a competition or an effort to win the lottery. The US Congress needs to create legislation to handle this situation, maybe even create a committee that can truly take the time to look at all the statistics and individual stories in an effort to provide relief to all of those that they determine to be a risk to society and deserve a second chance. The overall objective of this overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system with the early release of federal inmates is to reduce the enormous costs of overcrowded prisons and address drug sentences handed down under old guidelines that U.S. officials now viewed as too harsh.
Maybe one day, politicians on the hill can come to a consensus that there should be sensible drug policy and resources should be appropriated to identify and address the systematic problems in underserved communities that cause people to go to prison in the first place. Until then our fight continues…