Obama Plans Clemency for Hundreds of Drug Offenders

Post Date: April 21, 2014

(Yahoo News) — Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner’s left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says “Time Flies.”

If only that were the case.

For Scrivner, time has crawled, it’s dawdled, and on bad days, it’s felt like it’s stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she’s still living in the early ’90s—she’s never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.

It’s out there, outside of prison, where time flies.

On a sunny afternoon at a federal prison outside San Francisco last month, Scrivner nervously clutched a manila envelope full of photos of herself and her daughter that she keeps in her cell. As she displays the pictures, Scrivner’s daughter Alannah, who was just 2 years old when her mom was put away, changes from a redheaded, freckled young kid to a sullen teen to a struggling young mom. Scrivner changes in the photos, too. At first she’s a plump-cheeked beauty with chestnut-brown hair, then she’s a bleached-blonde woman in her early 30s, before becoming increasingly gaunt as the years grind on.

Today, she most resembles a 40-something high school volleyball coach, in her grey sweatshirt and neatly brushed-out dark bangs. But instead of a whistle around her neck, Barbara wears a large silver crucifix — though she describes her relationship with God as “complicated.”

“I believe in God,” Scrivner says. “I’m really mad with him.”

Her faith has helped her to try to make sense of what feels like an arbitrarily, even cruelly long sentence for her minor role helping her drug dealer husband. But 20 years behind bars has also tested that faith, and even caused her to question whether her life has any meaning or is worth living.

Scrivner is one of those rare prisoners who nearly everyone agrees is serving too much time for her crime. She started using drugs when she was just 8 years old, and moved on to meth as a freshman in high school, when she began dating the first of a long string of drug-using boyfriends. The drugs helped her escape the fog of depression that settled over her, in part created by the confused anguish she felt about being sexually abused as a child. By the time she was 20, she had been busted and served time in state prison for possessing meth — twice. That’s when she met her husband, a heroin addict and meth dealer who became her downfall. When his drug ring was broken up by the feds, Scrivner refused to testify against him or any other members. She was prosecuted for conspiracy and slammed with a 30-year mandatory minimum, despite her minor role as an occasional helper to her husband.

The judge who sentenced her to 30 years said his hands were tied. He was forced to lock her up for that long because of a now-defunct mandatory minimum-sentencing regime. If he heard her case today, he’d give her 10 or 15 years, he’s said. The prosecutors in the Portland, Ore., office that charged her agreed that if she were prosecuted today, she’d almost certainly get a sentence shorter than the 20 years she’s already served.

Thousands and thousands of people like Scrivner are serving punishingly long sentences in federal prison based on draconian policies that were a relic of the “tough on crime” antidrug laws of the ’80s and ’90s. Thirty years after skyrocketing urban violence and drug use sparked politicians to impose longer and longer sentences for drug crimes, America now incarcerates a higher rate of its population than any other country in the world. This dubious record has finally provoked a bipartisan backlash against such stiff penalties. The old laws are slowly being repealed.

Now, in his final years in office, Obama has trained his sights on prisoners like Scrivner, and wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn’t been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s. Read more