Last week, we wrote about the Obama administration’s efforts to grant clemency to federal prisoners facing long sentences for drug crimes. In all, President Obama has commuted sentences for 306 people, most of whom committed non-violent drug offenses.
Earlier this month, a group of 58 prisoners were granted clemency, including a Wisconsin man. His story seems to be consistent with many cases in which drug offenders became victims of overly harsh drug laws and overly zealous prosecutors.
The 51-year-old man, whose first name is Lavelle, is currently incarcerated in a federal prison in Minnesota. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lavelle was convicted of distribution of cocaine base and conspiracy to distribute cocaine base in the mid 1990s. After an appeal in 1999, he was resentenced to 31 years behind bars.
If President Obama had not commuted his sentence, Lavelle would have been in prison until January 2030. Instead, he will be released in September of this year. The president’s clemency has given this man 14 years of his life back.
These sentence commutations were not a free pass for “hardened criminals.” Rather they were meant to address disproportionately harsh sentences given to drug offenders during a time of national hysteria. Of the 58 inmates whose sentences were commuted, 18 had been sentenced to life in prison – for drug crimes. There are people who commit murder and receive lighter sentences.
As President Obama recently explained, his work alone cannot solve this problem. He said: “I will continue to review clemency applications, [but] only Congress can bring about the lasting changes we need to federal sentencing.”
Many believe that the war on drugs has been almost entirely ineffective. It has only resulted in unjustifiable sentences for drug offenders. Thankfully, our nation’s top politicians are finally beginning to address these injustices and to seek real drug policy reform.