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Finally Headed Home

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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December 20, 2013

Jason Hernandez says he is still shaking from the news that he will be released from prison in five years. Yesterday, his life without parole sentence was commuted to 20 years.

Before yesterday, President Obama had received over 8,700 commutation requests from federal prisoners and granted only one, to a terminally ill woman suffering from leukemia. She died at home in October. Now, eight more people will have the chance to reunite with their families after the President commuted their excessively long sentences.

Jason said waiting to die behind bars for his crime of dealing drugs for a five-year period starting when he was 15 is like “looking at the world through the eyes of a dead man.” He would spend his time “imagining all the things [he’d] love to do, and things [he’d] do differently if only [he] could get a second chance at life.” He’ll finally have that second chance.

Stephanie George’s lawyers told me yesterday that Stephanie was so overjoyed and shocked she literally could not form words when they told her that she will be released by April. A single mom of three, Stephanie was sentenced to life without parole for drugs her ex-boyfriend had stored in a lockbox in her attic. The commutation came as the best possible birthday gift for her daughter, Kendra, who has desperately missed her mom for the past 16 years. Stephanie told me months ago, “I pray and ask God to keep [my children] safe until I can get there and help them out.” She will now be reunited with her children and grandchildren outside prison walls.

Reynolds Wintersmith entered prison as a 20-year-old to serve life without the possibility of parole for his one-year involvement in a drug ring as a street dealer starting when he was 17. An older prisoner told him that he could treat prison as a college where he would learn and grow, or as his grave where he would die. Because of his unnecessarily extreme sentence, prison for Reynolds—like thousands of others—was to be both the place where he gained an education and the place where he would die. But this changed yesterday. After serving nearly 20 years in prison—half his life—for his first conviction, Reynolds will now have the opportunity to reunite with his daughter Chonte’ and pursue his dreams of teaching and counseling other young men to avoid the path that took him to prison.

But the eight Americans who were commuted yesterday are not alone: there are thousands more serving excessively long sentences. Over 2,000 federal prisoners have been sentenced to grow old and die in prison for nonviolent drug and property crimes. And the number is going up: we know of three people who were sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent federal drug crimes last week alone. Without presidential commutation, the only way these people will leave prison is in a coffin. And those commuted yesterday were just eight of the around 8,800 people who are still serving unjust mandatory sentences under a decades-old law that mandated sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine that are 100 times longer than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine.

Yesterday’s grant of commutations by President Obama is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system. But it must not be the last. The ACLU hopes the President will grant even more commutations, but only Congress can prevent the need for commutations going forward. This is because the sentencing laws themselves are the problem. President Obama announced yesterday that in the New Year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress such as the Smarter Sentencing Act. Extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing has caused our federal prison population to balloon out of control, and as a result federal prison costs to have soared to $7.9 billion this year alone. We need systemic reform like the Smarter Sentencing Act to fix America’s problem of extreme, costly, illogical sentences.

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