Pardonable Offenses: The Human Faces of the War on Drugs

Post Date: May 26, 2014

(The Washington Free Beacon) — Fourteen of the luckiest people in the United States were gathered in one room Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

TV cameras, reporters, and congressional staffers crowded into a small briefing room in the Rayburn House Office Building, to see the rare sight: 14 former prisoners, all of them drug offenders, who had their sentences commuted by a president of the United States of America.

The Justice Department announced an initiative last month to commute the sentences of thousands of federal inmates, and civil liberties groups have latched on to the momentum to seek long sought-after criminal justice reforms.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) brought the former prisoners to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and Justice Department officials. The goal was to put a human face on clemency and what the organizations say is an unjust federal prison system.

Among the group of former prisoners was a man who’d been sentenced at the age of 20 to life without parole for selling crack cocaine, his first drug offense. Most of them were black, and none had received sentences shorter than 10 years.

A recent Pew Research Center analysis showed that, between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws. Yet federal sentencing guidelines and drug laws remain mostly unchanged since their implementation during the tough-on-crime days of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The federal prison population has increased 3.2 percent a year over the past 10 years, and the system is operating at nearly 140 percent of its capacity. Drug offenders make up half of the federal prison population. And while African-Americans represent less than 15 percent of the overall American population, they constitute 37 percent of the federal prison population.

It was not an exaggeration when one speaker described the scene on Tuesday as “a room full of lottery winners.”

Presidents have used their pardon power less and less over the years. President Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences out of 5,448 requests, most of them at the end of his second term. President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences out of 8,576 requests. And so far, Obama has granted clemency to 10 people out of the more than 11,000 requests he has received.

But those are just numbers.

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On Tuesday evening I met with Phil Emmert in the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel. Emmert, 57, is stocky, white, and bald with a neatly trimmed, greying goatee. He grew up in Arkansas and has the manners to match. He was unique among the group of former inmates in that he was the only one whose sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush.

In 1992, federal prosecutors charged Emmert with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. A group of his biker friends had been caught with 27 pounds of meth, and all testified that Emmert had bought from them.

Emmert said he was just buying for personal use, and none of the testimony implicated him in selling. Nevertheless, he was charged for the full 27 pounds. The government also seized his car under asset forfeiture laws.

“[The prosecutors] told me, ‘if you try and get your car, we’ll go after your wife and say she was part of the conspiracy,’” Emmert said. “That’s a common practice, and they’ll do it, too.” Read more