A SUGGESTION FOR ADDRESSING OUR PROPENSITY FOR OVER INCARCERATION: CLEMENCY AND THE WAR ON DRUGS
Grant a systemic or group Presidential Clemency to a unique category of nonviolent federal inmates. This group would be nonviolent drug offenders serving sentences of life without parole or de facto life without parole.
Model this clemency on the clemency granted by President Gerald Ford and President Jimmy Carter who gave clemency to those who had violated the Selective Service Act during the War in Viet Nam. The War on Drugs has been an equally divisive war imprisoning a generation of men and women.
Where we've been, What We Found and Where We Must Go
These Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders have been Sentenced to Life without Parole in the Federal System
Life for Pot was originally and so far remains a site that features nonviolent marijuana inmates who have received the sentence of Life without Parole in the Federal system.
I started Life for Pot in December of 2008 and put up the site in 2009. The reason for this effort was because my brother had received life without parole as a first time nonviolent marijuana offender.
Of course his family could not believe that the sentence could stand. We didn't understand the criminal justice system. He had been indicted in 1994, imprisoned in1996, tried in 2000. His appeals were not completed till 2008 and that was when I needed to find out if others had received sentences of this magnitude.
When I started the site, a demographic began to appear. I didn't know who I'd find sentenced to life without parole in the federal system. I only knew I was looking for nonviolent marijuana offenders. As they were found, it was clear that these individuals were almost without exception older white men. This has changed over the years.
It was shocking, as I knew that young men of color are inordinately impacted by the tragic War on Drugs. The web site Life for Pot looked like a cruel and biased visual trick to grab attention and sympathy for a privileged group of white men. It was to a great extent the result of the narrow criteria I used which required that they have no other substance in their charges. In the beginning, these offenders were charged for life style and and drug offenses that began in the 60s 70s and some from the 80s.
I was gathering cowboys and characters from a different age and culture. Their offenses took place before there were large grow operations in various states so they imported, although there were a couple of growers. They had come of age in the 60s and 70s before the harsh sentencing that culminated in the 94 Crime Bill. All the new harsh sentencing was gradually enacted and then they were charged and prosecuted.
Of course I know that the vast majority of individuals arrested and/or incarcerated for marijuana are African American young men. Why didn't I find any of them? Unfortunately the harsh laws for marijuana have been devastating for young men and women of color but cocaine is the urban drug and the harsh sentencing for crack has eroded the social structure of large areas of in our cities.
Life without parole is a significantly hopeless sentence because without commutation or retroactive legislation for sentencing relief, these incarcerated people will die chained to a hospital bed. When the ACLU released the report A Living Death - Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses - the inmates on Life for Pot were featured by Jennifer Turner of the ACLU.
I had felt vaguely uneasy about what the site looked like and had for some time, but I couldn't go in another direction as the sentences of these unfortunate old men were so patently out of line with the offense. This was especially true as marijuana legalization was creeping across the country.
I have a site that is totally undeveloped, but is intended to address the sentence of Life without Parole for nonviolent drug offenders. Life without Parole
Clemency Project 2014 - By the Numbers
Commutation Petitions Denied 18,749
Commutation Petitions Closed without Action 4,250
Commutation Petitions Held Over 11,000
Commutation Petitions Granted 1,715
What has Happened to the Promise of Mercy and Compassion?
These are a few highlights from Clemency Project 2014
1. Eric Holder projecting 10,000 or more
2. Final number - 1,715
3. Number of nonviolent marijuana offenders receiving Clemency 39
4. Out of these 39 marijuana offenders 11 had life sentences.
5. The USSC published a graph showing the over 60 commutations were granted to marijuana offenders. The charge for these offenders was drug conspiracy rather than marijuana conspiracy. I was not provided the names of their additions, but was told that if marijuana was the main drug in the conspiracy they count it as a marijuana case. That is a different criteria than the criteria used by Life for Pot.
Life for Pot has been working since 2008 to call attention to people in the Federal Prison system who have received sentences of life without parole for a nonviolent marijuana offense. In the past decade people have become aware of this sentence for nonviolent marijuana only offenders, but very little has been done to alleviate these egregious and costly incarcerations.
In 2012 a Petition for Clemency was submitted to the Pardon Attorney's Office for five of these offenders who were all over the age of 62 and had served over 15 years of their sentences.
This petition was a concept to call attention to this sentence which very few people were aware of. The petition was immediately denied, but the travesty and wastefulness - both human and fiscal - had been highlighted and was gradually being exposed.
When Clemency Project 2014 was announced we had hope that the Obama Administration would realize that millions of dollars were being spent to keep these individuals incarcerated till death. Prison Policy Initiative's report, Follow the Money documents this expenditure
We also had hope that they would all receive sentencing relief through the clemency process. This is a sentence that does not fit the crime and is not fiscally responsible.
Unfortunately the process failed and many nonviolent marijuana offenders who will die behind bars did not receive compassion and mercy. If this policy continues, untold millions will be spent. Releasing these nonviolent offenders would in no way endanger public safety.
There were many indications that the process was not working. This letter was a bold shout out that the promise would not be fulfilled without intervention from the President. Pardon Attorney's resignation letter.