Clinton Examines Clemency Cases

  Clinton Examines Clemency Cases

Posted by FoM on December 22, 2000 at 06:37:59 PT
By Dennis Cauchon, USA Today 
Source: USA Today 

President Clinton is considering whether to offer clemency to scores of low-level drug offenders, raising the possibility that one of his last acts in office could be the broadest grant of clemency since presidents Ford and Carter pardoned thousands of Vietnam-era draft evaders more than two decades ago. The White House has been tight-lipped about what Clinton might do, but officials indicated Thursday that a decision could come as early as Friday. 
Several groups are trying to persuade the president to release some low-level drug offenders - perhaps as many as several hundred - before he leaves office, saying that their sentences were far too harsh. Clinton gave them hope during a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, in which he hinted that he might act dramatically to shorten the five-, 10- and 20-year sentences of some non-violent drug offenders. Clinton said drug sentencing policies should be re-examined. "The sentences in many cases are too long for non-violent offenders," he said, adding that it was "unconscionable" to punish crack cocaine offenders - more than 90% of whom are black - much more harshly than powder cocaine offenders, who are more likely to be white. The Constitution gives the president the authority to commute sentences and pardon those convicted of federal crimes. But in the last 20 years, presidents seldom have used that power. About 58% of the USA's 146,640 federal prisoners are drug offenders, many serving long mandatory sentences. "There is no question that the timing is better than it has been in a long, long time for having these cases considered for clemency," says Margaret Love, the Justice Department's pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. Three major efforts advocating clemency for low-level drug offenders are underway: A group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums has screened hundreds of cases and chosen a dozen inmates it considers to be prime candidates for having their sentences commuted. "It was an awful proposition because we had to pass over so many worthy cases," says Julie Stewart, president of the group. "We picked cases that the pardon office was most likely to look on favorably" - felons whose cases did not involve guns, those who have served large chunks of their sentences, and those whose co-defendants played a bigger role in the crime but received shorter sentences. The Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, a group of 675 clergy members, has asked Clinton to grant clemency to all low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have served five or more years in prison. Another group, the November Coalition in Colville, Wash., has collected 32,000 signatures on a petition seeking the early release of the same type of felons targeted by the Jubilee group. In 1994, Congress passed a "safety valve" law that let nonviolent drug offenders avoid mandatory minimum sentences and be sentenced based on the federal sentencing guidelines. However, the policy was not made retroactive. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has supplied the White House with a list of the 487 inmates who meet the "safety valve" rules but were sentenced before 1994. If Clinton were to commute those sentences, about 350 inmates would be released immediately. The rest would get out in the next few years. Phillip Gaines, 16, of Mobile, Ala., says he is optimistic that his mother, Dorothy, will be freed by the president. Dorothy Gaines, who is on the FAMM group's list of top clemency candidates, is in the sixth year of a 19-year sentence she received for being a minor player in a big crack cocaine ring. She was convicted of letting a boyfriend keep crack in her house, and she received a longer sentence than the boyfriend (who has been released from prison) and the drug ring's leader, who is scheduled to be released in 2004. After her conviction, her son's life went into a downward spiral. Phillip's grades tumbled; he's been held back two years in school and is in the eighth grade. His older sister dropped out of college to take care of him and another sister. "My sister tries to be my mother, but nobody can be a mom like a mom," he says. "I feel sorry for Dorothy Gaines," says U.S. Attorney Don Foster, chief federal prosecutor in Mobile. "I feel sorry for her children. But it's not a question of sympathy. It's a question of enforcing the laws as written by Congress. She was fairly treated relative to other people in her position." Arthur Curry, a Maryland educator, has a son whom inmate advocates see as another leading candidate for clemency. Derrick Curry was arrested for a crack offense at 19, is now 30 and is scheduled for release at age 40. "I will be very grateful if my son is granted clemency," Arthur Curry says. "But I have a hard time answering the question: Why my son and not someone's else's? There are a lot of Derrick Currys in (prison). They are not monsters. They are kids who made mistakes." Source: USA Today (US)Author: Dennis Cauchon, USA TodayPublished: December 21, 2000Copyright: 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.Address: 1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington VA 22229Fax: (703) 247-3108Contact: editor usatoday.comWebsite: Articles & Web Sites:Criminal Justice Policy Foundation for Jubilee Clemency Coalition Against Mandatory Minimums Before Turning Out The Lights Mr. President The Season To Free Nonviolent Drug President, Show Mercy and Good Sense Ask To Commute Drug Sentences 

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