In early August, a man serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense committed in the Syracuse area got an amazing phone call.
It was his lawyer calling with the news that after nearly 21 years of being locked up, the man would be getting out. President Obama had approved his application for clemency.
The man’s sentence was one of 214 commuted by the president, the most ever in one day in U.S. history. In this post, we will use a Q & A format to discuss what led to these commutations, how the process works, and why there is a need for reform in how the justice system responds to nonviolent crimes.
What happened in the Syracuse-area case that led to the imposition of a life sentence?
The trial, in 1997, was one of the largest drug-trafficking trials ever held in the federal court district that includes Syracuse. There were 11 defendants and the charges included the trafficking of crack cocaine.
Nine defendants were convicted. Eight of them have long since been released from prison. But under the sentencing laws in place at the time, the ringleader received a life sentence – even though the case was not connected to gangs or drug cartels, and no violence was involved.
The ringleader has now received clemency and will be released from prison soon.
How does the clemency process work?
Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a clemency program called Clemency Project 2014. It was aimed at people held in federal prison who would probably have treated more leniently under current sentencing laws.
President Obama directed Holder to do this out of concern about the harshness of so many sentences for nonviolent crimes, especially nonviolent drug offenses
In the Syracuse area case, the man’s lawyer wrote to the Clemency Project. After reviewing the case, the Clemency Project referred it to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the U.S. Justice Department. The pardon office made a recommendation to President Obama regarding commutation of the sentence.
A similar process was used in the other 213 cases that the president commuted this month.
Does this process work well?
It is a very slow process. But there are also other concerns besides slowness.
One is that, unlike a pardon, a commuted sentenced stays on someone’s criminal record. This means that a person with a commutation on his or her record may get screened out of employment opportunities or applications for housing due to a criminal record.
There is also the fact that commutations – even a lot of them – don’t change the need to overhaul a criminal justice system that seeks such long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.
How did the man in the Syracuse-area case cope with such a long prison sentence?
He kept in touch with his family. Many people serving long prison sentences lost touch with their families. This man did not. He called his mother regularly and communicated by phone and email with a daughter of his who was an infant when he landed behind bars.
A case like this one is a reminder to never give up when facing criminal charges, no matter how serious the situation seems. A skilled defense attorney can defend your rights and, in so doing, help you regain a sense of hope.