Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jul 2015
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2015 The Baltimore Sun Company
Authors: Timothy M. Phelps and Colin Diersing, Tribune Washington Bureau


Move Is Part of Drive to Reform Criminal Justice

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 
nonviolent drug offenders Monday, doubling the total number of 
clemencies he has granted as the administration seeks to correct what 
many see as the wrongs inflicted by mandatory-minimum prison sentences.

They included Norman O'Neal Brown, a Prince George's County man who 
was sentenced to life in prison in 1993 on charges of possessing and 
distributing crack cocaine.

The latest clemencies brought Obama's total commutations to the 
largest figure of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Decades after the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s, the 
Obama administration is hoping to combine the president's commutation 
powers with reforms to Justice Department sentencing policies and 
support from sympathetic Republicans in Congress to change sentencing 
policies that have had a disproportionate effect on African-Americans 
and Hispanics.

"These men and women were not violent criminals. ... Their 
punishments didn't fit the crime," Obama said in a Facebook video 
posted Monday, showing him signing the commutations. "I believe that 
America, at its heart, is a nation of second chances, and I believe 
these folks deserve their second chance."

Obama plans to lay out the case for comprehensive criminal justice 
reform in a major speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia today. In 
Oklahoma on Thursday, he will become the first sitting president to 
go inside a federal correctional facility.

Noting that the United States spends $80 billion a year on 
incarcerations, Obama said many drug offenders convicted under old 
laws are serving 20-year sentences, and even life terms, for crimes 
that would receive far lesser punishments under current guidelines.

One of those granted clemency Monday was John Wyatt of Las Cruces, 
N.M. He was sentenced in 2004 to 21 years for possession of marijuana 
with intent to distribute. The sentence was longer, in part, because 
he had previously walked away from a halfway house.

Another was Telisha Watkins, who, according to the advocacy group 
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, was addicted to drugs by the age 
of14 and dropped out of ninth grade while pregnant. Because of prior 
drug convictions and mandatorysentences, she was sentenced to 20 
years in 2007 for acting as an intermediary to help a friend buy 18 
ounces of cocaine.

Brown, of Hyattsville, was one of 23 alleged members of a large-scale 
drug distribution network in the District of Columbia and suburban 
Maryland who were arrested in a federal sting in 1990.

Undercover agents traded cellular telephones and pagers for crack 
cocaine, The Washington Post reported at the time. The phones 
supplied by an undercover FBI agent then became the tools by which 
investigators listened to the accused drug dealers arrange 
transactions, The Post reported.

Obama has now commuted more sentences than his past four predecessors 
combined. But he lags far behind most of his recent predecessors in 
granting pardons. While a commutation shortens a prisoner's sentence, 
a pardon wipes clean the offender's record. But pardons are usually 
more controversial, such as those granted by President Bill Clinton 
on his last day in office.

Monday's action brings to 89 the number of sentences Obama has 
commuted in his presidency, the most since Johnson, who commuted 226. 
But Obama's clemencies are only a tiny fraction of 7,889 clemency 
petitions pending from prisoners, according to the Justice 
Department. Obama's clemency efforts have so far fallen far short of 
expectations set last April, when the Justice Department announced 
the most ambitious federal clemency program in 40 years, inviting 
lawyers across the country to join forces to help tens of thousands 
of federal drug offenders to apply for clemency.

Liberal advocacy groups Monday welcomed the White House announcement, 
but said the 46 acts of mercy were "a drop in the bucket" compared to 
what they hope Obama will do before he leaves office.

Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project in Washington said there are 
7,000 to 8,000 prisoners still doing time for convictions involving 
crack cocaine who would not be in jail today under a reform of the 
crack cocaine laws in 2010.

Before that, those convicted of possessing crack cocaine were subject 
to sentences far higher than those given to people possessing the 
powder form of the drug. Since crack use was more common among 
blacks, African-American drug offenders received longer sentences 
than white offenders, who tended to be convicted in cases involving 
powder cocaine.

A new, private initiative to process clemency petitions, called 
Clemency Project 2014, bogged down after facing a series of 
unexpected obstacles, including difficulties in locating old paper 
court files in storage, said Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project 
manager. Also, federal public defenders were advised by courts not to 
get involved because they were already overburdened helping current 
clients, she said.

Only four of the 46 commutations ordered Monday came through her 
group's efforts, Roseberry said. They have received 30,000 
applications, and so far have forwarded only 50 to the Justice 
Department's pardon attorney. Nearly half of the applications have 
been rejected for not meeting guidelines, she said.

To be eligible for clemency the prisoners must have served at least 
10 years, had a good prison record and not have been found guilty of 
a violent offense. One of the toughest criteria to meet is that 
prisoners must be serving a longer sentence than they would receive today.

Most of those who received clemency Monday were convicted of the sale 
of crack cocaine. Fourteen of the 46 were sentenced to life in prison.

Two years ago, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told 
prosecutors across the country to stop using mandatory-minimum 
sentences against lower-level, nonviolent offenders. At the same 
time, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has revised downward its 
sentencing guidelines for some drug offenses.
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