Last fall, when the Senate Judiciary Committee passed S. 2123, the Sentence Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, Carmon Tate-bey felt like many federal inmates.
“I felt hope was alive,” said Tate-bey, an inmate housed at a federal prison in Indiana where I also reside. “I’ve been hearing talk and whispers about laws changing for 25 years, but this time, well, this time it really was different. Congress took a first big step.”
Convicted for conspiracy to distribute 25 kilos of crack, Tate-bey was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of release based and drug quantity and two minor drug convictions. If passed, a retroactive provision of the Bill could reduce his mandatory life sentence to 25 years with a judges approval, making him eligible for immediate release. But Tate-bey no longer has the sense of optimism he once did.
“As soon as I read somewhere that Senator Cotton was trying to put a stop to the Bill, talking ’bout how the Bill would let out violent criminals, I knew we were in trouble.” Tate-bey said. “I mean real trouble.”
The piece Tate-bey was referring to, was from an article originally posted on Politico. In an interview Senator Tom Cotton (R-ARK) stated: “It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons.” (Cotton leads effort to sink sentencing overhaul)
Specifically, Senator Cotton was referring to Section’s 104 and 105 of the bill, respectively, both which could be applied retroactively if passed. While the former (104) had the potential to enhanced penalties for felons convicted of possessing a firearm while in the commission of a drug or violent offense, the latter (105) could reduce the mandatory minimum penalty for all Armed Career Criminals from 15 years to 10 years.
Jesse Colon is one of those alleged “violent criminals” who Senator Cotton was referring to. Originally sentenced to life without the possibility of release for crack cocaine, and an additional 25 years for guns (sentences that by law had to be run consecutively), two separate changes made to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in recent years has left Colon with 25 years left to serve.
“The 25 years I’m doing now is for guns that I legally owned, but because I was arrested for crack, they said I used those guns to further my drug crimes,” said Colon, who is now serving time at a federal prison in California. “This bill would have given the judge discretion to run my gun crime concurrently with my drug crime, and I could be immediately released.”
The key words Jesse said were “would have.” On February 8, 2016, POLITICO reported that Senators who authored S. 2130 “were preparing several key changes to their bill aimed at mollifying conservative critics” such a Senator Cotton. Among those changes were, in fact, Sections 104 and 105.
“This is bullshit,” said Colon when he learned of the changes in February. “I’m not even a violent offender. I’m a first-time offender who got busted in a drug conspiracy, and I’ve never gotten a single disciplinary in prison in almost 20 years.”
But not all inmates see the amendments made to S. 2123 as a bad thing. Ronnie Blade is a 61-year-old African-American crack offender serving 5 mandatory minimum life sentences for 51 grams of crack cocaine. Incarcerated for more than 15 years, as long as S. 2123 leaves in-tact the provision of the bill that reduces mandatory minimum life sentences for third-time drug offenders to 25 years (which it does), he’s fine with it.
“I believe if they wasn’t gonna pass the bill, then they wouldn’t be goin’ through all the effort to please some of the conservative Senators,” Blade tells me in the prisons/ law library.”This thing is still alive. I still have hope.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Blade, and many of us in federal prison, chances of any criminal justice reform bills passing this year seems very unlikely. A Huffington Post report recently conceded to this dim reality, saying “Senators pushing for bipartisan criminal reform are running out of time to pass the legislation through both chambers before election year’s long summer recess begins. If lawmakers don’t find a way to move the bill before they leave in July, the chances of it passing this year dwindles significantly.”
So if congress doesn’t act, the question becomes Will President Obama do it on his own?
In a recent article posted on The Hill.com, three authors called on President Obama to issue blanket clemency orders affecting thousands of inmates in broad categories, each of which are listed in S. 2123.
“The most obvious one applies to the approximate 5,000 prisoners serving crack cocaine terms that the Congress concluded are disproportionate and unfair, but were sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act. President Obama could grant clemency in these cases across the board, essentially reducing their terms to the amount of time they would receive if sentenced today.”
Next the next category mentioned was 924 (c) also Section 104 in S.2123. This would apply to cases like Jesse Colon in which gun charges are “stacked” (or run consecutive) on top of drug crimes. Should Obama grant clemency to this group of offenders, their sentences could be reduced to the amount they are serving for a drug crime, or which ever sentence is greater (the gun charge or the drug charge).
And finally, the authors of The Hill piece, argue, Obama could use blanket clemency to reduce mandatory minimum life sentences for non-violent drug offenders to 20 years, such as he has done on three separate occasions thus far.
The fact is there is precedent for President Obama to take such drastic measures. In 1974, President Gerald Ford issued commutation to convicted draft dodgers, conditional on their agreeing to perform two years of community service. Three years later, President Carter went a step further and granted these same offenders a full Pardon. So it’s only a matter of will.
“I see the great things that President Obama has done for our country like healthcare, the economy, letting all of them undocumented workers stay and all of them prisoners out of Gitmo, and I can’t see it any other way, ” said Steven Tyrone Johnson. Serving a life sentence for a first-time cocaine charge, although Johnson currently has a Clemency Petition still pending, he believes that in the end, there will be so many clemency petitions left unresolved that there is “no way a man like Obama would just leave and turn his back on all of us in here.”
“It’s just not in his heart to do that kind of thing to us,” Johnson says. “There’s no way he’s gonna leave so many drug offenders in here for decades or the rest of our life.”
Tate-bey also believes in Obama, but believe’s the President may need a push.
“I’m praying that Obama will grant executive clemency to a lot of us at one time, but we need help,” said Tate-bey. ” People out there can set up a White House petition and directly ask Obama to do this for us, and I’m hoping somebody will do it. Is it too much to ask the President to reduce mandatory life sentences to mandatory 20 years – for non-violent drug offenses?”
As for Ronnie Blade, he has a message for the President.
“Please, President Obama. Please don’t leave the White House and leave so many of us drug offenders in here with these life sentences. I know many guys in here who fit your 2014 clemency initiative requirements, but we were all shot down just because we didn’t use an attorney to file them, just like your former Pardon Attorney admitted in an article in USA Today. I don’t think this is too much to ask.”