Pubdate: Thu, 28 Dec 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Eric E. Sterling
Note: Sterling is the head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in 
Washington, D.C. He was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 
to 1989.


Recently, over 675 leading clergy wrote to President Clinton asking him to 
commute the sentences of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have 
served more than five years. Columnists and editorial boards around the 
country are joining the call.

In the remaining days of the Clinton administration, how can the president 
identify some of those low-level, nonviolent drug offenders most deserving 
of release? He can appeal to the federal judges. He could ask every federal 
judge to send him the name of one or two of the cases that they lost sleep 
over because the sentence the judge was forced to impose was egregious. Or 
judges could voluntarily forward those names to the president.

In the days he has left in office, the president can learn from the Bureau 
of Prisons if these prisoners have had clean records in custody and would 
be appropriate candidates for commutation of sentence.

Since 1995, the Clinton administration has sent over 100,000 drug offenders 
to federal prisons. The federal prison population has doubled since Clinton 
entered office, from 73,000 to over 146,000. There are now tens of 
thousands of low-level, first-time offenders in federal prison with no 
violence in their background. Many of them deserve to be freed.

Since 1987, most judges have imposed sentences required by drug mandatory 
minimum laws and the sentencing guidelines. The sentences are much longer 
than they might have imposed if they were free to follow the general 
sentencing factors of the Sentencing Reform Act. Every federal judicial 
council has adopted resolutions condemning these laws. Repeatedly, judges 
tell defendants from the bench that they are sorry, but they must impose 
these long sentences.

For example, in April 1992, 19-year old Brenda Valencia was sentenced to 12 
years in prison for driving her aunt, who had no driver's license, to a 
house where the aunt sold 7 kilos of cocaine. U.S. District Judge Jose A. 
Gonzalez Jr., in the Southern District of Florida, said at the time, "This 
case is the perfect example of why the minimum mandatory sentences and the 
sentencing guidelines are not only absurd, but an insult to justice. . . . 
It's absolutely ridiculous to impose this sentence in this case." Valencia 
had no prior record for any offense.

Federal judges know, collectively, the names of hundreds, if not thousands, 
of prisoners serving sentences much longer than justice warrants. They can 
and should help the president to restore the public's lost confidence in 
our system of justice.

On July 7, President Clinton commuted the long sentences of two women who 
were low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. He recently told Rolling 
Stone  magazine that drug sentences "in many cases are too long for 
nonviolent offenders." To commute an excessively long sentence, or where 
compassion calls for a release, is to further the interests of justice and 
thus to "faithfully execute the office of president."

Such presidential-judicial requests would be extraordinary, but we are in 
extraordinary times. The federal prison population had been less than 
30,000 for the seven decades prior to 1980. But it grew to 40,505 at the 
end of Fiscal Year 1986 when the harsh mandatory minimums were enacted. The 
current federal inmate population of 146,640 is truly extraordinary. Given 
the potential political risks of clemency to a president seeking 
re-election, this opportunity is unlikely to arise again for eight or more 

In Leviticus 25:10, God proclaims every 50 years a Jubilee year for the 
forgiveness of debts and freeing slaves and prisoners.

Pope John Paul II recognized the year 2000 as a Jubilee. Regarding the 
responsibilities of government officials, such as presidents and judges in 
this Jubilee year, in July the Pope said, "I turn with confidence to state 
authorities to ask for a gesture of clemency toward all those in prison. . 
. . "

Courageous, compassionate and wise federal Judges should act now. They 
should review their memory and records for the names of defendants whom 
they sentenced to terms they felt in their hearts were terribly excessive. 
If they send those names to the president, they will help him fulfill his 
oath of office, and in this holiday season, they will honor the injunction 
of the Holy Bible.

Sterling is the head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in 
Washington, D.C. He was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 
to 1989.
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