By C.N. Staff Writer
The presidential seat of power will permit for special allowances that only sitting presidents can grant. In the month of December President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were serving life or lengthy sentences for crack cocaine-related crimes.
Six of the eight prisoners granted commutations Thursday were serving life sentences. All had been behind bars for at least 15 years. Under Obama’s orders, most will of the inmates will be released in mid-April. “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama said in a statement, adding that they had been “sentenced under an unfair system” which gave far longer sentences for crack offenses than those involving powdered cocaine. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates are serving time for crack offenses committed before Congress reduced mandatory minimum sentences, going forward, in the 2010 law.
There has been much discussion and debate about the sentences given to individuals who have been given long or life sentences for non-violent crimes. In 2010 Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparity for people convicted of crack and powder cocaine crimes. However, the act is not retroactive to people convicted prior to 2010. The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.
“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 of the eight whose sentences he commuted. “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 commutation recipients included Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., who was sentenced to three life terms in prison for his role in a 1993 drug deal, when he was 22. Another recipient is a first cousin of Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick, Reynolds Allen Wintersmith, Jr., of Rockford, Ill., who was 17 in 1994 when he was sentenced to life in prison for dealing crack. The White House has said Wintersmith’s commutation had no relation to his relationship with Governor Patrick. Stephanie George, of Pensacola, Florida was another recipient of commutation. She received a life sentence in 1997, when she was 27, for hiding a boyfriend’s stash of crack in a box in her house. In both the Wintersmith and George cases, the judges criticized the mandatory sentences they were required to impose, calling them unjust.
Wintersmith, Aaron George were featured in a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about the thousands of people serving life in prison for nonviolent offenses. The report, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses,” revealed that more than 3,000 inmates were serving life without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes as of 2012, comprising about 6 percent of the total life-without-parole population. ACLU has said it is pleased with the pardons Obama has made.
It stated, “For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.”
Prior to Obama’s December pardons, he has only pardoned a total of 52 people pardoned only 11 people for drug crimes, and had used his powers of clemency to provide relief to just 40 people in all — fewer than any other modern president. Since 1980 the country’s population has increased by about a third, growing by about 800 percent according to the Justice Department.
Attorney General Eric Holder has made several moves to limit sentences in future drug prosecutions, by encouraging prosecutors to file charges that don’t automatically draw lengthy sentences. The administration is also supporting proposals in Congress to do away with mandatory minimums in many cases — a drive Obama endorsed during his pardon statement.