4 Prisoners Obama Should Consider Freeing As Part Of His Clemency Push


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The New York Times reported  that President Obama is readying another wave of clemency grants for nonviolent drug offenders who have served disproportionately lengthy sentences in prison. The administration may commute the sentences of dozens of federal inmates over the next month.

Despite renewed public scrutiny on mass incarceration, the Obama administration has been unusually stingy in granting pardons and clemency to federal inmates. The administration touts the fact that Obama has commuted 43 sentences, more than the 11 commuted by George W. Bush and the 13 by Reagan. But he has granted just 64 pardons, compared to 189 prisoners pardoned by Bush and 396 pardoned by Clinton. A presidential pardon wipes a criminal conviction from an inmate’s record, affording them certain civil liberties like restored voting rights and the right to own firearms.

The administration has been promising a clemency push over the past year, soliciting applications from nonviolent federal offenders who have been in prison for at least a decade on sentences they likely would not have received if convicted today. So far more than 30,000 federal inmates have submitted applications.

The Clemency Project, which is fielding the applications, estimates that nearly 100,000 people are currently serving time for drug offenses while more than 75,000 are serving mandatory minimum sentences. Most of the inmates eligible for clemency are serving sentences dictated by now-defunct mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Even after many of these racially skewed sentencing requirements were reformed, the Justice Department has repeatedly argued that most people currently serving excessively long sentences should remain in prison. That means a commuted sentence from Obama is the sole hope for thousands of people whose sentences have been deemed unfair.

Anonymous administration officials have suggested Obama may be open to mass clemency, telling Yahoo News last year that “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of nonviolent drug offenders might have their sentences shortened or be pardoned before Obama leaves office. Here are a few people Obama should consider including when he announces his clemency grants:

DeJarion Echols seemed to be doing everything “right” to escape poverty before a two-decade sentence for dealing crack cocaine derailed his life. Growing up in a deeply impoverished neighborhood of Waco, TX, Echols “thrived academically,” according to a profile in Rolling Stone. He attended a magnet school, won a district-wide writing contest, worked as a counselor for at-risk youth, and won a football scholarship to Texas College. Echols started dealing crack over a six month period when he found out his financial aid would not be enough to cover college. He was arrested while he and his girlfriend were expecting their second daughter. An unloaded rifle a customer had traded for crack was found in his room, boosting his sentence by ten years. The harsh mandatory minimum prompted his judge to remark, “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me.” Echols applied for a commuted sentence in 2011, but his petition was denied. Under the new criteria put forth by the Justice Department, he may have another shot for release before 2023.

Weldon Angelos had founded his own rap label and was producing songs for major artists like Snoop Dogg when he was caught selling marijuana to undercover law enforcement. Angelos was 24 years old when he was convicted of several counts of drug charges, firearm possession, and money laundering, adding up to a mandatory sentence of 55 years. The sentencing judge was so outraged at the “unjust, cruel, and even irrational” mandatory minimum that he asked President Bush to commute Angelos’ sentence. But Angelos is hardly the only inmate spending his life in prison for marijuana offenses. Even as states have begun to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use at a rapid pace, countless federal and state inmates are facing life without parole for marijuana-related crimes.

Robert Furlong is also languishing in prison for a marijuana offense. A first time offender, Furlong was struggling with depression and anxiety and could not hold down a job to pay child support for his daughter, who lived with his ex-wife. A friend who sold him marijuana helped him buy a farmhouse to grow marijuana for the friend to sell. Furlong was sentenced to 15 years on charges of federal conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. Legally purchased guns found on the farm added five years to the mandatory sentence.

Ronald Evans is spending life in prison because he got involved with the wrong crowd when he was 16 years old. He joined a drug network in 1990 as a teenager being raised by a single mother in a Virginia project, dealing drugs and serving as a lookout for deals after school. Evans’ nonviolent juvenile record was used to brand him as a “career criminal” and he was labeled a leader in the conspiracy, even though he was barely 18 at the time of his arrest. As a result, his mandatory minimum was life in prison. Even though the Supreme Court has banned life without parole for juvenile defenders, Evans is stuck in prison for the rest of his life.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress