President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people, including a Tampa man, saying they were serving unduly harsh drug sentences. It was the most expansive use yet of the president's power to free inmates.
All eight were sentenced under old federal guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses harsher than those involving the powder form of the drug. Obama also pardoned 13 others for various crimes.
The Tampa Bay Times reports one of those whose sentences were commuted is Ezell Gilbert of Tampa, who was sentenced to more than 24 years in 1997.
Records show that Gilbert, 44, is serving his sentence at a minimum security federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala. He was scheduled to be released on Nov. 15, 2017.
State records show that Gilbert was detained when he was 19 on the first of several drug arrests. He served time in state prison for cocaine and weapons charges, the records show.
As a federal inmate, Gilbert submitted to court a request that his sentence be reduced. In the 2012 pleading, he said he had been a "model prisoner" who had "taken responsibility for his grievous mistakes and horrible choices in life" that led to his incarceration.
Gilbert noted that while in prison, he had taken courses in career planning, resume writing and AIDS awareness.
The president signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties for crack cocaine offenses in order to reduce the disparity. But the act addressed only new cases, not old ones.
Obama said those whose sentences he commuted Thursday have served at least 15 years in prison, many under mandatory minimums that required judges to impose long sentences even if they didn't think the time fit the crime.
"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Obama said in a written statement. "Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."
Obama ordered that most of the prisoners end their sentences on April 17. That includes 39-year-old Reynolds A. Wintersmith Jr. of Rockford, Ill., who was a teenager when he was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison for selling crack. His attorney, MiAngel Cody, said in a telephone interview that the judge told Wintersmith that giving such a sentence for a first-time offender gave him pause, but he had no choice under the law. Cody notified Wintersmith of the commutation in a phone call Thursday and said his elated client responded, "I intend to make President Obama proud."
In the previous five years of his presidency, Obama had only commuted one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people. A pardon forgives a crime without erasing the conviction, typically after the sentence has been served. A commutation leaves the conviction and ends the punishment.
Groups that advocate for prisoners have criticized Obama for being stingy with his power - George W. Bush granted 189 petitions for pardon and 11 for commutations, while Bill Clinton granted 396 for pardon and 61 for commutations. White House officials say Obama had only approved a single commutation petition among more than 8,000 received because it's the only one that had been given a positive recommendation by the Justice Department.
According to one senior Obama aide, the president expressed frustration that he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations. So early this year White House counselor Kathryn Ruemmler approached Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who overseas the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and asked them to take a hard look at the clemency petitions filed by convicts for any that might have merit, given the change in the drug sentencing law.
The Justice Department responded this fall by presenting the White House with the 21 recommendations for clemency. Ruemmler oversaw an independent analysis and turned over detailed memos on the cases to the president, who signed off on them all, according to White House officials.
The old sentencing guidelines subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with powder who were more likely to be white. It was enacted in 1986 when crack cocaine use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug. Under that law, a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 500 grams - 100 times - of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the ratio to about 18-1 and eliminated a five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called on Obama do to more. "Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people, but shame on the president for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still in federal prison on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom," he said.
White House officials say he doesn't believe that clemency can be a solution on a large scale, because it's such a time intensive process and there are thousands of federal inmates affected. The Obama administration wants to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, and the president called on Congress to act in the new year.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," Obama said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."
In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
President Barack Obama on Thursday commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of crimes related to selling drugs:
- Clarence Aaron of Mobile, Ala., sentenced in 1993 to life in prison
- Stephanie Yvette George of Pensacola, Fla., sentenced in 1997 to life
-Ezell Gilbert of Tampa, Fla., sentenced in 1997 to 24 years, commuted to time served
- Helen R. Alexander Gray of Ty Ty, Ga., sentenced in 1996 to 20 years
- Jason Hernandez of McKinney, Tex., sentenced in 1998 to life, commuted to 20 years
- Ricky Eugene Patterson of Fort Pierce, Fla., sentenced in 1995 to life
- Billy Ray Wheelock of Belton, Tex., sentenced in 1993 to life
- Reynolds Allen Wintersmith Jr. of Rockford, Ill., sentenced in 1994 to life
The president pardoned 13 other people:
- William Ricardo Alvarez of Marietta, Ga., sentenced in 1997 in Puerto Rico to nine months in prison on heroin charges
- Charlie Lee Davis Jr. of Wetumpka, Ala., sentenced in 1995 to seven years on cocaine charges
- Ronald Eugene Greenwood of Crane, Mo., sentenced in 1996 in South Dakota to home confinement and probation for conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act
- Little Joe Hatch of Lake Placid, Fla., sentenced in 1990 to five years on a marijuana charge
- Martin Alan Hatcher of Foley, Ala., sentenced in 1992 to five years' probation on marijuana charges
- Derek James Laliberte of Auburn, Maine, sentenced in 1992 to 18 months for money laundering
- Alfred J. Mack of Manassas, Va., sentenced in 1982 in the District of Columbia to 18 months to four years on a heroin charge
- Robert Andrew Schindler of Goshen, Va., sentenced in 1996 in Utah to home confinement and probation on conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud
- Willie Shaw Jr. of Myrtle Beach, S.C., sentenced in 1974 to 15 years for armed bank robbery
- Kimberly Lynn Stout of Bassett, Va., sentenced in 1993 a day imprisonment and five months home confinement for embezzlement
- Bernard Anthony Sutton Jr. of Norfolk, Va., sentenced in 1989 to probation for theft
- Chris Deann Switzer of Omaha, Neb., sentenced in 1996 to home confinement and probation for conspiracy to violate narcotics laws
- Miles Thomas Wilson of Williamsburg, Ohio, sentenced in 1981 to three years for mail fraud
Source: The White House.
Each was convicted in their home state, unless otherwise noted.
For the commutations, the president ordered that their sentences expire on April 17, except where noted.