By Nkechi Taifa —
President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”
I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.
I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.
President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.
We over-incarcerate and over-punish, and essentially throw away the key. The research time and again has shown that not only do people age out of criminality, their continued incarceration costs society a fortune, while making our communities no safer. It is only when we begin reforming our appetite for long sentences that we will truly make a dent in this problem.
I am thinking of people like William Underwood, a 61-year-old grandfather who has spent nearly 27 years behind bars, serving a life sentence. He was pegged as a gang leader, and convicted on serious conspiracy and drug charges. But it was his first and only felony conviction. The laws he was convicted under have changed, and so has he. Any tie he had to any type of criminal activity is buried in the distant past. And he has professed deep regret for his youthful misdeeds.
Underwood’s clean institutional record, remorse for poor choices, and determination to maintain strong bonds with his family have helped him attract a groundswell of diverse supporters calling for his release. His children and friends have been joined by national civil rights leaders, professionals in the music and entertainment businesses, scholars, and formerly incarcerated mentees in urging the president to commute his sentence.
Conservative leader Pat Nolan wrote, “Prison is for people we are afraid of, not those we are merely mad at. We are mad at Mr. Underwood because he sold drugs. But at age 61, we are not afraid of him.” Even representatives of the conservative Koch Brothers have met with his children and expressed support for his release. (I represent Mr. Underwood pro bono.)
The outpouring of support for Underwood in his commutation petition is a stark reflection of the injustice of his situation: no matter how long he lives, no matter how much his life has changed, no matter what steps he has taken to better himself, no matter how many laws have changed, he can never, ever leave prison alive. Such a sentence, devoid of hope and compassion, is inhumane and akin to a living death. As the actress Maria McDonald, founder of Cover Girls for Change, wrote in calling for his release, “When does punishment become abuse? When does abuse become inhumane and holocaustic? When is enough enough?”
President Obama offered a powerful answer to that question with his third set of commutations on Monday. “I believe at its heart America is a nation of second chances,” he said. As such, I urge our president as he carefully considers more petitions for clemency to take a hard look at all the William Underwoods languishing behind bars, who may have made serious mistakes in the past but have long since changed their lives and want to rejoin their families and communities. They, too, deserve mercy and compassion. They, too, deserve a second chance.