The Right Remedy for Overly Harsh Drug Sentences

Post Date: February 3, 2014

(Chicago Sun-Times Editorial) — Federal prisoner Jesse Webster isn’t asking for a special break or to have his record wiped clean.

After 19 years in prison, he’s simply asking for fairness.

In 1995, when Webster was 28 years old and living on Chicago’s South Side, he was convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine. Despite having no record, mandatory minimums in place at the time got him a life sentence without parole.

At the time, and again in a letter last fall supporting a commutation of his sentence, the judge said life was too much. Given discretion, Judge James Zagel said, he thought 20 years or so would do it, roughly what Webster has already served.

The prosecutor on Webster’s case also wrote on his behalf. The life sentence, he said, was “driven by the severity of the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines at the time — not driven by the U.S. attorney’s office, Judge Zagel or the needs of justice.”

The world had changed since 1995, giving Zagel the discretion he yearned for non-violent offenders like Webster.

Yet Webster remains in jail, penitent for having once been a drug dealer but sure that he deserves to one day step foot out of prison.

He is right, as are thousands more like him in who are in federal prisons across the U.S. serving unnecessarily harsh — and costly — prison sentences. The excessive sentences are not only destroying lives but overcrowding prisons and siphoning off federal dollars that could be better used to prevent crime and prosecute violent criminals.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice took a step to fix this injustice.

In a highly unusual move, Deputy Attorney General James Cole asked defense lawyers to help the government find more candidates for clemency. He is looking for inmates convicted of drug crimes, particularly prisoners convicted under draconian and discriminatory crack cocaine laws that were reversed in 2010. Webster’s lawyer has already submitted a letter on his behalf, following up an official clemency request last fall.

Prior to 2010, convictions involving crack resulted in more severe penalties than those involving powder cocaine. The disparity, disproportionately impacting black men, was significantly reduced with passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

But that law isn’t retroactive. Ditto for mandatory minimums for other drug offenses that have since been cast aside, like the one that ensnared Webster.

The best remedy is to pass a bill pending in Congress, bipartisan legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, that would apply the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactively. The 8,800 federal prisoners incarcerated for crack cocaine crimes could return to court to seek a sentence in line with the 2010 act. It also would lower mandatory minimums for some other non-violent drug offenses.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is doing what it can, hence the national search for clemency candidates announced last week.

No one is saying men like Webster are angels. Webster isn’t saying that either. But he argues, convincingly, that he’s served his time and that locking him up for the rest of his life isn’t good for anyone — not for him, nor for society.

President Obama in December commuted the sentences of eight men and women who were sentenced under outdated and harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“There are more low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Deputy Attorney General Cole said last week. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

It’s time to right that wrong. Read the editorial