President Obama lifted the spirits of prison reform advocates by granting a holiday gift to eight convicted drug offenders, commuting their prison terms and in the process making a strong statement against the mandatory minimum sentences and disproportionately harsh prison terms for crack cocaine charges that have locked up a generation of Black men.
Over the last several years the Obama administration has made efforts to address the sentencing disparities, but advocates say he has not done enough. As pointed out by the Daily Beast, at the same point in his presidency George W. Bush had pardoned or given clemency to 70 people, compared to Obama’s 40.
While studies have shown that blacks and whites use drugs in roughly the same proportions, numerous studies have shown that blacks are much more likely to be sent to prison for possession.
Yesterday’s move by Obama was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced after the rules changed in 2010.
The president issued a statement saying each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
The organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums says roughly 8,800 federal inmates are serving time for crack offenses committed before Congress reduced mandatory minimum sentences in 2010.
A significant move was made by the administration in August, when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he would direct federal prosecutors not to automatically seek mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama said. “But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress.”
Yesterday’s move involved prisoners who already had served at least 15 years in prison—six of the eight had been sentenced to life. The plight of several of them had become a cause celebre.
Obama previously had commuted only one sentence in his five years in office and has mostly pardoned people who have already served their sentences. According to Justice Department statistics, Obama had received 8,576 petitions for clemency by Dec. 1.
“Considering in his first five years in office he granted only one commutation, I suppose we should be thrilled that he granted eight,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But considering the number of people in prison who are serving excessive sentences, this is a drop in the bucket.”
One of those whose sentence was commuted was the first cousin of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, allowing the release of a man who in 1994 was given a life sentence on charges of dealing crack cocaine.
While Patrick said that he does not recall ever meeting his first cousin Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr., 39 of Rockford, Ill., and had no involvement in his application for clemency, the case would naturally draw much scrutiny because of Patrick’s closeness to Obama.
“There’s a significant age gap between the two, and the governor has no recollection of having met Mr. Wintersmith,” said Patrick’s spokeswoman Jesse Mermell. “Gov. Patrick had no involvement in any application for a commutation of Mr. Wintersmith.”
Wintersmith, whose case had been profiled in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times and pushed by the American Civil Liberties Union, joined a drug ring when he was 17, and he was arrested when he was 19. Advocates for his release said he was the only juvenile, first-time offender in the country serving a mandatory federal life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
“I have spent over half of my life in federal prison,” Wintersmith wrote in a blog post put on the ACLU website on Monday. “I have been gone from a world that witnessed the advent of smartphones, digital cameras, and GPS technology. More personally, I have been gone from my family. I have missed 20 years of graduations, funerals, and carved turkeys for the holidays. For my very first conviction, I paid with the entire balance of my freedom.”