By Julianne Malveaux
Jerry Alan Bailey was sentenced to more than 30 years in federal prison for conspiring to violate federal narcotics laws. Shauna Barry-Scott was sentenced to 20 years for having cocaine in her possession and intending to distribute it. Jerome Wayne Johnson grew marijuana plants and was charged with intending to distribute marijuana. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Douglas Lindsay initially was sentenced to a life sentence for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute, but early on his sentence was reduced to 24 years.
Bailey, Barry-Scott, Wayne and Lindsay were among the 46 people whose sentences President Obama recently commuted. They are the lucky ones.
There are 95,165 people – 48.6 percent of all federal inmates – incarcerated for drug-related crimes, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (That’s triple the second-largest category that includes weapons, explosives and arson; 31,743 or 16.2 percent of federal inmates are confined on those charges). Another 210,200 – 16 percent – were imprisoned in state facilities on drug-related offenses as of 2012.
President Obama’s commutations of non-violent drug sentences are a step in the right direction. By choosing non-violent drug offenders, he highlights the draconian sentences that those committing these crimes receive. The American Civil Liberties Union says that of the nearly 3,300 people getting life sentences for petty crimes, almost 2,600 will spend decades in jail for non-violent drug offenses.
According to AlterNet, thanks to the “three strikes” law, Tyrone Taylor got life for selling an undercover agent $20 worth of crack. Taylor says he was a drug user, not a dealer. Still he got more time than many killers would. Leland Dodd, 59, got a life sentence for conspiracy to traffic marijuana, and has already served 24 years in federal prison. Army veteran David Lincoln Hyatt had no prior record when he got a life sentence in 1993 for his role in a cocaine conspiracy. Now 65, he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and hopes to receive a compassionate release. Even the judge who sentenced him under mandatory minimum sentencing laws has advocated for his release.
According to President Obama, we spend $80 billion a year on incarceration. In contrast, according the White House Initiative on HBCUs, these colleges got between $600 and $700 million from the Department of Education on grants and contracts.
I applaud President Obama’s step forward in pardoning 46 non-violent drug offenders. Many of whom would have been better off had they been sentenced under the less harsh Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. After passage of that act, inmates were invited to apply for lighter sentences and about 20,000 did. The Office of the Pardon Attorney reviews these requests, and forwards those they deem worthy of commutation to the president. The 20,000 applications are delayed because of a “backlog” in reviewing them.
It costs the federal government $82 per day or approximately $30,000 a year to support one inmate. If even only half of those who have applied for clemency deserve it, that’s a savings of $822,000 a day or $300 million per year. This is money that could go for all kinds of initiatives around job training, drug treatment and education. Imagine that, instead of incarcerating addicted people, they were sentenced to residential drug rehabilitation programs.
President Obama has solid ideas for criminal justice reforms, but it is not likely that this Congress will pass any of them. So he is left working with presidential commutation, an inmate at a time. Is it possible to grant “mass” commutations for those convicted of relatively minor drug crimes, especially those who had clean records before arrest?
In addition to saving lots of money, it would, in many cases reunite families. Strict conditions of probation would likely prevent recidivism. Nearly 150,000 children have mothers in prison, some for poverty-related, non-violent drug crimes. Some of these mothers desperately want contact with their children, and many of them deserve it. Most would gladly comply with restrictive probations conditions if they could just hug there child.
It’s good that President Obama “gets it” when it comes to reforming the criminal justice system. Can he implement change more quickly than pardoning one non-violent offender at a time? There is no difference between Jerry Allan Bailey and Tyrone Taylor except that Bailey received the pardon. There are thousands waiting on a similar break. Let these people go!
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C.