In a major victory for prisoner rights advocates, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight people he said were serving unfair sentences for drug crimes. Most of the six men and two women had been sentenced to life in prison for charges related to crack cocaine. All of them have already spent more than 15 years behind bars under what Obama called an "unfair system," where there was a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. That disparity was reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but it came too late for thousands of inmates. "This is huge news. This gives these people the opportunity to return to their families," says Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union and author of the report, "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." Turner notes that Obama’s action is "an important first step" and calls on Congress to pass broader sentencing reform.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a major victory for prisoner rights advocates, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight people he said were serving unfair sentences for drug crimes. Most of the six men and two women had been sentenced to life in prison for charges related to crack cocaine. All of them have already spent more than 15 years behind bars. In a statement Thursday, Obama noted, quote, "If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society."
AMY GOODMAN: The prisoners were sentenced under what Obama called an "unfair system," where there was a hundred-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. That disparity was reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but it came too late for thousands of inmates.
For more, we’re joined by Jennifer Turner, human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union. She wrote about several of the people whose sentences were commuted in her ACLU report, "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses," which she spoke about on Democracy Now! just last month.
Jennifer, welcome back to Democracy Now! Tell us who got these commutations.
JENNIFER TURNER: So, there are eight people. Six of these are Americans who were sentenced to die behind bars for nonviolent crack cocaine offenses. Four of these people are profiled in my report. They include Reynolds Wintersmith, a young man who was sentenced at 20 for his involvement in a drug conspiracy as a street dealer for only one year, starting when he was 17. He’s served 20 years—half of his life—in prison. Jason Hernandez was sentenced to die in prison for five years of street dealing in Texas, starting when he was only 15. Others have served half their life, like Reynolds. And for all of them, they’ve been sentenced to unfair mandatory sentences that are excessive, because of previous disparities that punish crack cocaine offenses 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses.
And this is huge news. This gives these people the opportunity to return to their families, some as soon as April. And it’s a really important first step in achieving some kind of sentencing reform that would roll back the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that resulted in these sentences. But the fact is that these eight people are not alone. There are thousands more, 2,000 people in the federal system, serving life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes, and many thousands more in federal prisons who are serving stiff, excessive mandatory minimum sentences who are being left behind. And frankly, clemency is not the answer for all of these thousands of people. And Congress needs to step up and to pass bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that would at least give some hope to others and would roll back some of the really illogical sentencing laws that were passed in the ’80s and ’90s.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Were you surprised by the announcement from President Obama, especially given the fact that he has pardoned so few people during his time in office?
JENNIFER TURNER: I was shocked. I was shocked. I have been talking to prisoners for the past year—I’ve talked to 650 prisoners now—who have been saying they had no hope of getting out, who their only hope in many of these cases was commutation from President Obama. We weren’t expecting this. President Obama, as you said, has the worst clemency record of any president in modern history. Until yesterday, he had received 8,700 commutation requests from prisoners and had granted only one, to a woman dying of leukemia, who died at home two months ago. So, we were not expecting this kind of commutations for this Christmas, which is truly the best gift possible for these families. I talked to one of the prisoners, Reynolds Wintersmith, the day before he was sentenced, and he was—he was not especially hopeful, but I just—he’s beyond overjoyed now that he will be returning home to his family and to his daughter, with whom he’s very close. And the others feel the same way.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has pardoned fewer people than any president in history at this point in the administration. Why were these eight people chosen?
JENNIFER TURNER: President Obama chose these eight people to signal that something needs to be done about the nearly 9,000 people who are still serving excessive mandatory minimum sentences under the old crack-powder disparity laws. So, under laws passed in the ’80s, people were serving sentences that were 100 times more severe than those for powder cocaine. So that means that people who were sentenced for five grams of crack cocaine, which is the weight of two pennies, were sentenced to the same five-year mandatory sentence as those sentenced for 500 grams of powder cocaine, to give you a sense.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced that disparity to 18-to-one. But almost 9,000 people weren’t helped by that legislation. They’ve been left behind, and they continue to stay behind bars, many for the rest of their lives, at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers a year.
And President Obama said at least he’s going to start with these eight people, but I hope that it’s the start of both more commutations to come, but also the passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is now pending in Congress. It’s going to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the new year. And that would allow those who have been left behind by this law to finally get their sentences reduced to something—a somewhat fairer sentence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in line with that, I wanted to ask you about—earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a major policy shift to help certain low-level drug offenders avoid harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences. In an address to the American Bar Association, he announced a review of racial sentencing disparities.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Today a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them. It’s clear, as we come together today, that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, is it your sense that this is—the president’s decision today is part of this review that Holder announced?
JENNIFER TURNER: Well, this is part of it. It’s part of really, I think, bipartisan support, and realization across both sides of the political aisle that our one-size-fits-all mandatory sentences aren’t working. It has sent far too many people to prison for far too long, as Eric Holder just said on the tape. And federal judges have been calling for years for reform of mandatory minimum sentences, and finally the attorney general and the president have spoken out about them in the last year. But really, at this point, Congress has to act. Only Congress can change the sentencing laws. You know, I mentioned 2,000 people are serving life without parole for federal drug crimes right now, but last week alone, I know of three people who were sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent federal drug crimes. The number is going up.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say "die in prison," that’s life without parole.
JENNIFER TURNER: Life without parole, explicitly life without parole sentences just last week for nonviolent drug crimes. And I know—those are three people. There may be others.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one of the points, I think, about some of these folks who were freed by the president and also the—that critics have raised, is that often the people who get these long sentences, life without parole, are the ones who actually went to trial because they didn’t agree to a plea deal, and often the kingpins are the ones who turn and agree to cooperate and get lighter sentences.
JENNIFER TURNER: Absolutely, absolutely. Stephanie George, one of the people who was commuted yesterday, was sentenced to life without parole for drugs her ex-boyfriend stashed in her attic in a lockbox. He took responsibility for the drugs. He was found to be the leader of the conspiracy. But he’s been out of prison now for years, because he cut a deal. And others who testified against her also have been out of prison for some time. But she had no information to trade. She wasn’t involved in any kind of major way.
Similarly, Clarence Aaron, one of the other men who was commuted yesterday, when he was in college, he introduced a college classmate’s brother to a drug dealer he knew in high school, had a very minimal role in a drug conspiracy—I’m sorry, two drug deals, one of which didn’t even take place. And he was sentenced to die in prison because he had no information to trade. The supplier is about to be released next year. Everyone else involved in the conspiracy at a much higher level have all been released from prison. But he went to trial. He fought the charges, and he lost. And because it was a mandatory sentence—the judge said, "I object to the sentence." Similarly, Stephanie’s case, the judge said, "You’ve just been a girlfriend and a bag holder, but my hands are tied." And over and over, this is the case.
And similar, we see unfair sentences because of the crack-powder disparity. Jason Hernandez, also commuted yesterday, on the same day he was sentenced to die in prison, at 21, the supplier, who supplied all the drugs that he helped distribute, was sentenced to only 12 years in prison for the same amount of drugs, but because he distributed powder cocaine, not crack cocaine. Jason was sentenced to die in prison because he was distributing crack.
AMY GOODMAN: The sentences that were commuted—they’re not freed right away, but in the next months—that were commuted yesterday were federal cases. What about the roles of governors?
JENNIFER TURNER: That’s a great question. Now there are thousands of people—over a thousand people serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes in the states, according to my research, but many others serving long sentences. And I really hope that President Obama’s leadership on granting commutations yesterday will prompt governors to do a similar review and hopefully issue commutations on a grander level in the states, because, I can tell you, I’ve identified many, many, many hundreds of people who will never be released from prison if their state governors do not take action. And again, as in the federal system, state spending on prisons has skyrocketed, and governors need to address the cost of prison, these long sentences, if they’re going to try to have enough money for education and for other worthwhile efforts.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Turner, it looks like we are just about to reach one of the people whose sentences were commuted. Do you see other commutations before the end of the year?
JENNIFER TURNER: I truly hope that this is the first of more commutations, but I don’t know what to expect. As I said, President Obama’s record has been the worst of any modern president. He’s denied many commutation petitions. And even if he were to start granting commutations in a more broad manner, it’s not going to address all of the many thousands of people serving excessive sentences, like Jason’s. And we’re about to hear from Jason directly.