Dear President Obama,
I am a criminal defense attorney, and at the prodding of one of my colleagues, Marjorie Peerce of Ballard Spahr, I have volunteered my time to screen clemency petitions through the Clemency Project, a project to provide free legal assistance to federal prisoners serving longer sentences than they would have received if sentenced today. In this role, I review multiple clemency petitions and evaluate whether an executive summary should move on to the project’s steering committee. It is overwhelming how many individuals are languishing in prison with life sentences who are low level drug offenders with no history of violence. Being a small part of helping to right the wrongs created through overcriminalization has been rewarding beyond belief.
But it has also been a stark reminder of the injustice endured by so many of our nation’s prisoners. In my work with the Clemency Project, I agreed to prepare an executive summary to support a petition for clemency for an old CJA (Criminal Justice Act) client of mine who received a 200 month sentence for selling 58 grams of crack. The importance of this responsibility cannot be overstated. It feels different than defending someone facing a charge – this is a person’s last chance in my hands. To get to know the personal story again behind this human being is both tragic and disturbing.
He grew up with parents plagued by addiction and witnessed both his mother and father using cocaine in the family home from an early age. His father died when he was twelve, a tragedy that sent him into a downward spiral. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and became so addicted to narcotics himself that, for the six years leading up to his arrest, he spent every day getting high on drugs to feed his crippling addiction. Eight months after he was sentenced in this case, his mother died from HIV. My heart broke when I discovered that, in the close to ten years he has been incarcerated, no one has gone to visit him. I wanted to get in my car and go visit him myself. The facts of the case and his criminal history don’t even begin to justify a double-digit prison sentence for a 23 year-old young man.
I am disturbed and outraged at how our system has hurt this young man. All I can think about as I am finalizing the executive summary to submit to the Clemency Project is that my work is not enough. I am consumed with the thought that I must reach out directly to you, Mr. President.
My hope is that I can express to you the magnitude of the injustice that occurred here, and that I can implore you to use your discretion to right this wrong. My hope is that I can help you see what I see about this young humble and kind man who never had a chance in life to be more than a small time street level drug dealer.
My fellow defense attorneys who’ve seen these kind of injustices might say that no one is ever going to see this letter, that it is a useless effort. We know that we are up against steep odds whenever we represent a defendant charged with a drug offense. We tell ourselves these are the crack guidelines, and we can’t change that. We tell ourselves that this is a tough judge, and we can’t change that. And in spite of our pleas for leniency or even just a fair sentence, we walk away having to swallow our outrage, understanding that we can only do so much to change the system. Our cynicism, shaped by years of injustice, makes us think that no one in power is ever going to care about the cause of an insignificant young man like my client, certainly not the President of the United States.
I am writing to you, Mr. President, because I believe you do care. I have been troubled by this case for ten years and although I am grateful that, in your presidency, you have shown concern for these issues, I somehow want you to hear that a young man was designated a career offender for selling 58 grams of crack when he had previously been charged with having sold cocaine on only two prior occasions of such small quantities that in one instance he only made $15.00. And as this was unfolding, like in so many other cases, those entrusted as officers of the court stood by and acted as if it was normal and commonplace: simply our criminal justice system at work.
I want to ask you to meet my client and learn the tragic story that brought him to where he now sits, in prison. I want you to be the one that finally visits this young man, not as a PR opportunity but to truly see him and talk to him. This act would serve as an acknowledgment that his life really does matter. I want you to bear witness, with me, to the severity of what our criminal justice system did to him. In my mind, this would be a meaningful step in repairing the injustice, which could change his life forever.