President Barack Obama put a dent in America's ridiculous reputation for insanely long sentences for drug offenses Tuesday. He commuted the prison sentences for 22 federal prisoners, eight of whom were serving life without parole. Among those who got a second chance was Pompano Beach woman Theresa Brown, who has been in prison since 1993 for a crack cocaine offense.
Because she had prior offenses, Brown was sentenced to life without parole for conspiracy to distribute the drug under enhanced and mandatory sentencing laws for crack cocaine, even though she wasn't a big-time dealer and didn't cause any violence. The enhanced and mandatory sentences for crack have proven to be racist, a problem that was somewhat addressed with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.
According to the ACLU, under the 100:1 scheme, blacks served, on average, as much time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.
But Brown was locked up almost 20 years before Obama signed the FSA into law, and it wasn't retroactive. The only clear way for her to get out early was a letter from the president.
That letter came Tuesday. Brown, along with 21 others, had their sentences commuted, and the White House wasn't shy about letting people know the president has some compassion for nonviolent drug offenders.
Valerie Jarrett, Obama's senior adviser, tweeted a copy of the letter signed by the president to one of the individuals who had his sentence shortened. In it, Obama says he is granting the commutation “because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.” Obama goes on to say that there will be challenges because people might not be compassionate toward former prisoners.
President Obama gave 22 individuals this letter and a second chance. pic.twitter.com/eMok3TDDEG— Valerie Jarrett (@vj44) March 31, 2015
White House attorney Neil Eggleston also wrote about how the drug sentencing schemes are outdated and unfair:
Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.
The Obama administration's very public announcement of the 22 commutations was praised by sentencing reformists, but there were also questions of "Why not more?"
Mike Riggs, spokesperson for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells New Times that Obama's increased use of his pardoning and commutation powers (he already has four times as many as George W. Bush) was encouraging, but there are many others deserving of a break.
"The number of commutations is getting larger, and there are many people that can stand to benefit from it," says Riggs, pointing out that there are more than 3,000 prisoners in the federal system serving life without parole, many of them for nonviolent drug offenses. "These sentences are basically the results of federal three strikes laws, and there are also many thousands of people serving sentences that are longer than what they would have received if they were sentenced after the passage of FSA, all crack cocaine defendants. There's still a lot of work to be done."
Indeed, drug offenses are still the major reason so many people are in the federal prison system. Almost half of all federal prisoners are in for a drug offense:
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Radley Balko, columnist for the Washington Post, was blunt about Obama's use of his pardon and commutation powers:
Obama has said he believes federal drug sentences are inhumane. So 22 commutations--of 1000s--isn't courageous. It's political cowardice.— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) April 1, 2015
But for now, a shred of justice is being given to Brown, also known as Valarie Bozeman, who at age 48 has spent nearly half of her life in prison. But it wasn't easy. In addition to getting harshly sentenced, she had numerous appeals denied before she earned the attention of Obama by getting support from U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro, the judge who sentenced her. And according to the Sun Sentinel, several U.S. Bureau of Prison officials also wrote letters on Brown's behalf.
Brown wasn't the only Floridian to get a commutation. David Navejar of Brooksville was sentenced to 20 years back in 1993 for "conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine." Like the others, he will be released on July 28.