Sentencing Reform and Clemency

Today’s Washington Post has an article about Obama’s new clemency project and talks about the work of former Catoite, Julie Stewart. Julie left Cato to start Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991. Here’s an excerpt from the Post story:

An Obama administration initiative to encourage nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison to seek clemency is likely to trigger tens of thousands of petitions, and the government could be processing applications for the next three years, according to lawyers and civil rights activists….

“We will get tens of thousands of applications,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “This is a very complicated, many-layered project. It will go on until the end of the Obama administration.”…

For some of the activists, the issue is deeply personal. Stewart’s brother, Jeff, was sent to federal prison for a mandatory five years for growing marijuana.

He had cultivated 365 six-inch marijuana plants in his garage in Washington state, where the drug is now legal. She thought what he did was “stupid” but assumed he would get off with a relatively light sentence because it was “only marijuana.”

“The judge said, ‘I don’t want to give you this much time but I have no choice because Congress has determined your sentence when they passed the mandatory sentencing laws for drug crimes,’ ” Stewart said. “That was the spark that ignited my mission. I always thought judges judge and determine the punishment that fits the crime. But the judge couldn’t do anything about my brother’s sentence.”…

“When I started my group, sentencing reform was such a fringe issue,” she said. “Nobody knew anything about it and nobody cared. We’ve been working so hard for so many years to build bipartisan support. People are serving decades behind bars for nonviolent mistakes they made in their 20s.”

Over at the FAMM web site, there are profiles of persons serving long sentences in federal prisons. A few weeks ago, before this week’s clemency announcement, Julie and I discussed these issues in a Cato audio roundtable discussion. We both criticized Obama for not exercising his pardon power. Were our criticisms were picked up by the NSA? n any event, you have our permission to listen to that conversation here.

Previous post on the clemency initiative here.