The United States of America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. A large portion of incarcerated individuals include nonviolent, low-level drug offenders who were subjected to outdated mandatory minimum sentencing practices. After years of an intense War on Drugs, the justice system may finally be giving these individuals a second look. A new initiative recently announced by the Justice Department will give President Obama more options to grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders, as long as they meet the following criteria:
- Currently in federal prison for longer than the current mandatory sentence for the same crime.
- No history of violence—inside prison or out.
- No significant ties to large criminal organizations.
- Already served at least ten years.
- Demonstrated good conduct while serving time.
While there are clear benefits to having fewer people locked up, some wonder if releasing convicted criminals is such a good idea. Who exactly are these low-level drug offenders, and if they aren’t dangerous, how did they end up with life sentences? Here are five examples of individuals that could qualify for Clemency under the new legislation. Their stories show that the law is not always black and white, and that even judges’ hands are tied when it comes to meting out punishment.
55 years for marijuana
Weldon Angelos, who founded a successful rap label in Utah, was arrested after an arranged buy and convicted of selling a few pounds of marijuana while in possession of a gun. Mandatory sentencing required the judge give Angelos 55 years in prison—a decision even the judge deemed to be “unjust, cruel and even irrational” pointing out that repeat child rapists get shorter sentences.
Life without parole on a technicality
Sherman Chester is serving life in prison with no chance of parole for selling cocaine and heroin. At age 25, Chester was busted by an undercover detective along with nine others involved in a drug ring. The harsh punishment stems from a sentencing that treated Chester as if nearly the entire amount of seized drugs had belonged to him. Once again, a judge hampered by mandatory minimums lamented the sentencing: “This man doesn’t deserve a life sentence, and there is no way that I can legally keep from giving it to him.”
Harsh penalties for rejecting a plea bargain
When Sharanda Jones could no longer support her family as a restaurant manager and cosmetologist, she began to sell coke and crack in the Dallas area to make ends meet. At age 32, she was convicted of taking part in a drug conspiracy and sentenced to life without parole. The harsh sentence comes from the fact that police and prosectuors believed her to be a ringleader, because she carried a gun when meeting with her supplier, and because she claimed innocence. Co-conspirators got no more than 19 years.
Maximum sentence for refusing to testify
Scrivner is serving 30 years in federal prison for being involved in a drug ring. Molested as a child, Scrivner became addicted to drugs and eventually starting selling small amounts of meth to get by. When the drug ring she worked with was initially busted, Scrivner essentially got a pass; however, after she refused to testify against her co-conspirators, Scrivner was indicted on charges of possessing 109 kilos of meth.
Unfortunately, stories like these are not at all uncommon, and they highlight a disconnect between our ideas of justice, and the criminal justice system.