When I began serving my federal prison term back in 1987, I didn’t have any experience with prison. I didn’t know what mechanisms for relief would be available to me after my judge sentenced me.
Despite knowing I was guilty, I proceeded through a criminal trial and a jury convicted me on multiple counts. Attorneys told me that I could appeal. Yet by the time I was convicted, I’d been incarcerated in county jails for nearly a year. I wasn’t too optimistic about relief through the judicial system. After all, I knew that the jury had rightfully convicted me.
Rather than waiting for relief through the judicial system, I set new aspirations of wanting to earn liberty.
Prior to Judge Jack Tanner sentencing me, I made a commitment to atone for the bad decisions I began making when I was 20. In truth, I began making bad decisions much earlier. As a high school student I chose the wrong friends. Bad influences and lack of character led to my making careless decisions. When I was 20, I began trafficking in cocaine. A trio of DEA agents arrested me on August 11, 1987, when I was 23. After the jury convicted me of leading a scheme to distribute cocaine, I recognized and accepted that I had set my life on a horrific course. I wanted to do better. Doing better, from my perspective, meant working to reconcile with society.
The three-part plan that guided me began with contemplation. While staring at the ceiling of my jail cell, I questioned whether I could do anything to earn freedom. To answer that question, I projected into the future, wondering what law-abiding citizens would expect from a man who served a lengthy sentence for violating drug laws. The best possible outcome, for me, would be to reconcile with society so that when I emerged I’d have an opportunity to live the remainder of my life as a contributing, law-abiding citizen. By reverse engineering how I could best make that happen, I came up with my plan:
- I would work to educate myself.
- I would work to contribute to society.
- I would work to build a support network.
That simple strategy guided every step that I took through prison. I didn’t have any hope or expectations for relief through the judicial system. Through reading about executive clemency encouraged me.
The U.S. Constitution authorizes the President to commute sentences and to forgive people for criminal convictions through the Executive Clemency process. I studied to understand the difference between a pardon and a commutation.
- Executive Clemency: Clemency is the overall term for when the President chooses to act on criminal justice matter. The President may choose to forgive a crime in different ways, including amnesty, a pardon, or a commutation.
- Amnesty: Through Executive Clemency, the President may choose issue an order of Amnesty to a particular class of offenders. For example, people who violated various laws pertaining to income tax may have qualified for an amnesty grant if they paid the taxes owed by a certain date. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter granted a blanket amnesty to Americans who refused to serve in the Vietnam War, despite laws that required them to register with the military.
- Remission: Reduces the financial sanction associated with a sentence.
- Reprieve: Delays the imposition of the sentence. This form of Executive Clemency might apply if the President chose to delay the imposition of a death sentence.
- Pardon: The President may forgive an offense through the Pardon process. Pardons may have conditions, or strings attached, or the President may issue a Pardon without conditions. A Pardon can restore certain rights, like the right to bear arms, to vote, or to run for public office. People who are convicted of felonies lose such rights, but a Pardon can restore them. Although the President can grant a Pardon at any time, typically, they only grant Pardons after the individual has finished serving the sentence and lived as a law-abiding citizen for five years.
- Commutation. A commutation will be of interest to anyone in prison, because the President can commute the sentence, at any time. This means the President can say, “enough is enough” by issuing a commutation. The former President Bush commuted the sentence of his aide Scooter Libby, sparing him the indignity of serving a prison sentence altogether.
As time passed in prison, I learned that acts of Executive Clemency were rare, especially since our nation made its commitment to mass incarceration. Ironically, when our nation’s prison population was much lower, Presidents were much more generous in their willingness to use their Executive Clemency powers. To illustrate this point, I refer readers to the Department of Justice website. The page on Clemency Statistics shows that President Lyndon Johnson served between 1964 and 1969. During those years, our nation’s federal prison system confined fewer than 35,000 people. President Johnson received 4,537 requests from inmates for Executive Clemency. He granted 960 pardons and he commuted the sentence of 226 inmates.
The federal prison population surged since President Johnson’s administration. Ironically, as federal prison population levels surged, Presidents grew less inclined to forgive sentences through pardon, or to commute sentences.
Nevertheless, as the months turned into years, and the years turned into decades, I kept working to earn freedom, hoping for clemency.
During President George W. Bush’s eight-year term, the Federal Bureau of Prisons incarcerated more than 200,000 prisoners at all times. He received a total of more than 11,000 petitions for Executive Clemency. If he granted clemency in the same proportion as President Johnson, he would have either commuted or pardoned the sentences of more than 3,000 people. Instead, he pardoned the crimes of 189 people and commuted only 11 sentences, including that of his pal Scooter Libby.
Until President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 people on March 31, he too was resistant. Now, it appears that momentum is shifting. More people who serve lengthy sentences in federal prison may anticipate release in the months and years to come.
On April 23, 2014, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole held an official press conference to announce a new clemency initiative. In his statement, he said:
“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system. I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals—equal justice under law.”
This new clemency initiative makes it more important than ever for inmates to understand the process of Executive Clemency. The more inmates understand, the better prepared they’ll be to make an informed decision on whether they want to advance a petition for a commutation of sentence.
On August 12, 2013, I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons. All in all, I served 26 years, as I received “good time” credit for avoiding disciplinary infractions. With President Obama’s issuing commutations to 22 people on Tuesday, March 31, it would seem that we’re going to see some change. It’s my hope that more reforms will lesson our nation’s wrongheaded commitment to mass incarceration.
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