The compassionate release reform in the First Step Act is being used by some federal judges as a second look authority. The stories here of Jamal, Adam, Lisa, and Devon show why this mechanism makes sense and should be used more often.
In his more than 18 years in prison, Jamal Ezell completed over 700 hours of education, several dozen courses through Bureau of Prisons (BOP) programming — including anger management and victim empathy — and received stacks of certificates, awards, and honors. Jamal acted like a person who wanted to reenter society ready to make a success of life, like someone who knew he’d be going home. Trouble was, Jamal was sentenced to 132 years and one day. According to the BOP, he wasn’t ever going home.
In 2002, Jamal participated in six robberies at gunpoint. No one was seriously injured. Jamal was offered a plea agreement of 32 years, declined, and went to trial. He was found guilty on six counts of Hobbs Act robbery, aiding and abetting, and six counts of carrying and using a firearm during a crime of violence (924c). He was 23 years old. The six gun counts, because of the mandatory minimum sentence structure of “stacking,” landed Jamal with 132 years. Judge Jan E. DuBois expressed concern over the harsh sentence and gave Jamal only one day for the robberies, sending a clear signal about his disagreement with the mandatory sentence he was bound by law to hand down.
“At first, it was kind of rough inside,” says Jamal. “But at five years, I changed my life and the people I was around, and I just tried to do positive things.”
In 2019, he applied for compassionate release after the First Step Act passed, which broadened the use of this kind of sentence relief. In 2020, Jamal connected with retired Judge John Gleeson, who took on Jamal’s case and argued that his client’s draconian sentence constituted “extraordinary and compelling circumstances,” criteria under which compassionate release can be granted. Judge DuBois, against Jamal’s sentence from the start, granted his release on February 11, 2021. Now 42, Jamal is settling in with his family, working in health care, and maintaining the same positive attitude that got him through the specter of life in prison. “I deserved time. But that was too much time. Freedom is everything to me now, and I’m not going to squander it.”
In early 2000, Adam Clausen was a 25-year-old homeless drug addict. His desperate situation propelled him into a robbery spree spanning 20 days – nine robberies, using a firearm in each instance. The use of the firearm plus prior offenses mandated a 213-year sentence for Adam. “It was one terrible mistake after another,” Adam says now. “Which piled up to a mountain of remorse and regret that still towers over me all these years later.”
After serving almost 20 years, passage of the First Step Act enabled Adam to apply for compassionate release under broader criteria. His motion was granted, and he walked free in August of 2020.
Now, instead of nights of despair in a cell, Adam spends his nights changing diapers and rocking his three-month-old baby, Christian, to sleep. He is happily married and full of energy and commitment to a new life. He is about as far away from that desperate 25-year-old as anyone could get, and he’s determined to stay that way.
Beyond his change of fortune, Adam seems most interested not in himself, but in “inspiring infinitely more people to become their best selves, regardless of their circumstances,” he says. He’s been this way for years, even in prison. Once he settled into prison life decades ago, he threw himself into helping others – as a fitness coach, a certified life coach, and mentoring and teaching wherever and however he could. It was a way, he soon realized, to come to terms with the grim fact that the courts had decided he would never be free again.
Adam is working hard to give others that same hope. He works at the nonprofit Hope for Prisoners, where he continues the coaching work he honed in prison and occupies a leadership role. And he hasn’t forgotten those he left behind.
“I was not the only one serving a brutally long sentence. I was fortunate to squeeze through a crack while it was open, but there are so many people locked up who are supposed to die in there, people who have changed fundamentally. People who deserve to be seen for who they are today. I want my life to show that we need a mechanism to take a second look. People shouldn’t be thrown away.”
Neither the prosecutor nor the judge in Lisa Kuffel’s case wanted her to get the sentence she got – more than five decades. The prosecutor, Mark Hardiman, called her sentence “enormously long … draconian.” Judge Laughlin Waters said, “[T]he court is compelled to impose an exceedingly heavy sentence. It’s not a sentence that I would impose had I freedom, which I simply don’t have … the application of Section 924c here results in a sentence in my view that is going to be disproportionate to the facts as we find them.”
Lisa committed four robberies while armed with a gun, all driven by her need to finance her fierce addiction to heroin. She’d tried for years to kick it, and at one point, she got sober and met a man who kept her on the straight and narrow. Shortly after they married, he was killed by a drunk driver right in front of Lisa. She relapsed. She then made the decision to rob banks to get money to feed her addiction. The robberies took place over a few weeks, and no one was injured.
Lisa’s sentence would have been eight years, but because she carried a gun while she robbed the banks, it was increased by a mandatory statutory term of 45 years, based on three convictions of using a firearm during a crime in violation of Section 924c – “stacking” charges. Her total sentence was 640 months – 53 and a half years. She was 33 when she was arrested, essentially sentenced to die behind bars.
In prison, Lisa did a lot of hard work on herself. She broke her addiction to drugs and “met all facets of my life – the hardest and the most simple – with a level head and a clear conscience,” Lisa wrote in her clemency application.
“I’m not saying that I didn’t belong in prison … I robbed banks in search of money for my drug addiction. I had a gun. I know the world was a safer place without me in it … I am not proud of that … [But] this is no longer my present, it’s my past. I am wholeheartedly ready to face all aspect of my life. To bring joy instead of heartache to my family and friends.”
Over the years, Lisa applied for relief many times and was always turned down. But after the First Step passed, Lisa applied for compassionate release based on “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” – meaning, the grossly extended length of her sentence. She won, and in November of 2020, she was granted freedom. The women at the prison in which she was incarcerated gave her a standing ovation when they heard the news.
In a letter to President Trump in 2018 supporting Lisa’s clemency application, prosecutor Mark Hardiman wrote, “Ms. Kuffel’s case haunts me to this day as a case where justice was not served by such a lengthy sentence.” Compassionate release and the opportunity for a second look has finally given Lisa the justice she deserves. Now 65, Lisa says she will make the most of her freedom and “live my life in gratitude and honorably.”
Devon Sappleton was 27 and father to an eight-year-old daughter when he was given life in prison for his role in a drug conspiracy. He was sentenced as a “career offender” because of two prior low-level drug offenses. That distinction meant that Devon would spend the rest of his days behind bars – even though there was no violence in his conduct, he was not a kingpin, and he had no ties to gangs or cartels. At the time of his arrest, he lived with his parents, and his only assets were two used cars, totaling $5,000. Before receiving the harsh sentence, the longest Devon had ever spent behind bars was one year. Now he was looking at the rest of his life in a cage.
Devon spent the next 20 years working steadily in prisons jobs with UNICOR, taking as many classes and programming as he could, staying out of trouble, and trying to father his daughter Monique as best he could. He received his paralegal certificate, earning a 94 percent in the class.
He also applied for relief from his sentence several times through the years, and always was denied. But after the First Step Act was passed, Devon was connected to a federal defender to apply for compassionate release. That legislation opened the door for the court to consider several factors, including the huge disparity between Devon’s sentence and what it would be if he were sentenced today – a 15-year mandatory minimum.
Indeed, Judge Peter Messitte found that this disparity established an “extraordinary and compelling” reason to reduce his sentence under compassionate release. The judge also said that because the First Step Act amended the penalties associated with the “career offender” designation that landed Devon with his life sentence, he was now permitted to use his discretion and impose a reduced sentence. After 20 years in prison, Devon was released in February of 2021.
He’s been getting used to freedom and trying to find employment. He also is enjoying reconnecting with his family after all these years. Very grateful for his second chance, he’s not taking any of it for granted.
“Getting compassionate release gives you another chance to show you’ve changed,” Devon says. “You are not the same person you were when you came in. It’s a great vehicle for second chances.”
Do you think more people should get the kind of second chance that Jamal, Adam, Lisa, and Devon got? Help us in our fight and support FAMM’s Second Chance Agenda.