In becoming the first president ever to visit a prison with his trip to the medium-security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City, President Barack Obama has signaled that he’s serious about pushing prison reform before he leaves office.
Together with his recent move to commute the sentences for 46 drug offenders, Obama is doing more than his predecessors. But it’s not good enough.
After I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program, I agreed to a plea deal that sent me to a federal prison for 23 months. Like most American prisons, mine was full of nonviolent drug offenders – people who had made a mistake, in some cases many years ago – or who had supposedly been caught up in drug rings.
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These people had never physically hurt anyone. Many had never committed a crime before, but our nation’s sentencing laws are so tough that many are spending decades locked up.
One example is my friend Mark. He’s 45 years old and from the south side of Philadelphia.
A few years after Mark graduated from high school, his mother’s boyfriend introduced him to methamphetamine manufacturing. The guy taught Mark, who has never used drugs, how to make high-quality meth, which a gang in Philadelphia bought.
Six months later, Mark decided that it wasn’t the life for him, and he became the only person in an eight-man meth operation to voluntarily leave the conspiracy. After another six months went by, DEA, FBI and ATF agents arrested the conspirators – but not the boyfriend or Mark – and charged them with multiple counts of conspiring to manufacture and distribute meth.
As the conspirators negotiated plea deals, they began informing on each other, and on Mark. He was arrested and charged a year later.
Against his better judgment, Mark went to trial. He thought that once he was able to explain to a jury that he had walked away from the conspiracy, that he meant no harm to anyone, and that he did not want a life of drugs, jurors would understand and would be lenient.
Not surprisingly, he was quickly found guilty. With enhancements for failure to accept responsibility, having a “leadership” role as the informants had testified, and an upgrade for the total amount of meth produced, Mark received three life sentences without parole. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to 30 years. Mark has finished 14 years of his sentence. With good time credit, he has 12 years to go. He’ll be in his late 50s when he’s released for a nonviolent crime he committed when barely out of his teens.
A major Washington, DC law firm has taken up Mark’s case, and his attorneys believe that he has a good chance of having his sentence commuted. Even his prosecutor has written a letter of support saying that Mark’s sentence was not justice, and that he should not have received more than 10 years. But mandatory minimum sentencing, imposed by Congress, gave him 30 years.
It would be wonderful for Obama to commute Mark’s sentence – and the sentences of other federal prisoners like him. I believe that will happen.
But freeing these wrongly incarcerated people won’t end the practice of imposing what in many cases amounts to lifelong sentences for first-time, non-violent drug offenders. Congress must take action to change mandatory minimum sentencing laws now.
US prisons are bursting at the seams because of Congress’s supposedly tough attitude toward drugs. This country now has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Half of those prisoners are drug offenders.
American taxpayers and our society can’t afford to lock up so many nonviolent offenders for such long periods. It isn’t “justice” and it doesn’t make the country any safer. Commuting sentences is a good start. But only Congress can correct America’s unfair sentencing laws.