President Obama Commutes Sentences of People Serving Life Without Parole

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  • In what many civil rights advocates are calling a bold judicial breakthrough, President Obama on Thursday used his extraordinary executive power to commute the sentences of eight federal inmates — some of whom are black — who were convicted of non-violent crack cocaine offenses – the first time in recent memory that a U.S. president considered cocaine-related cases to offer relief for some inmates who were sentenced to life in prison.

    “Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system,” President Obama said in a statement. “Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison.  In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime.”

    “Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses,” Obama said.

    “This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late,” Obama said.  “If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society.  Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

    Each of the federal inmates has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison. They are eligible for release within 120 days and can move on with their lives. The news was welcome relief for the families of the inmates around the holiday season.

    Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been fighting against mandatory minimum sentences for decades, said Obama’s decision to commute the sentences cannot be overstated.

    “Today the President of the United States made a significant and major breakthrough in the unfair mandatory sentencing disparities for crack cocaine offenders in this country,” Rev. Sharpton said in a statement.  “President Obama gave a holiday gift that many of us have labored to see, and we celebrate this step towards a more just judicial system”

    Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said her organization applauds President Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of eight people currently serving extraordinarily inflated prison terms for nonviolent crack cocaine offenses.

    “The President’s ability to commute sentences is an extraordinary power, and his decision to exercise that power in these cases sends a powerful signal that the White House is committed to reducing mass incarceration and working to restore fairness to the criminal justice system,” Ifill said in a statement.

    The President also granted commutations to the following eight individuals:

    •       Clarence Aaron – Mobile, Ala.
    Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute cocaine; attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute (Southern District of Alabama)
    Sentence:  Life imprisonment, five years’ supervised release (Dec. 10, 1993)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

    •              Stephanie Yvette George – Pensacola, Fla.
    Offense: Conspiracy to possess cocaine base with intent to distribute (Northern District of Florida)
    Sentence:  Life imprisonment, ten years’ supervised release (May 5, 1997)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

    •              Ezell Gilbert – Tampa, Fla.
    Offense: Possession with intent to deliver cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute marijuana (Middle District of Florida)
    Sentence:  292 months’ imprisonment, five years’ supervised release (Mar. 25, 1997)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to time already served

    •              Helen Alexander Gray – Ty Ty, Ga.
    Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base; possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (Middle District of Georgia)
    Sentence:  240 months’ imprisonment (Apr. 19, 1996)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

    •              Jason Hernandez – McKinney, Tex.
    Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances; possession with intent to distribute and distribute crack cocaine and methamphetamine; possession with intent to distribute a mixture of methamphetamine and cocaine hydrochloride; distribution of a controlled substance between 1,000 feet of a protected property; establishing a place for manufacture and distribution of controlled substances (Eastern District of Texas)
    Sentence:  Life imprisonment; eight years’ supervised release; $5,000 fine (Oct. 2, 1998)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to 240 months (20 years)

    •              Ricky Eugene Patterson – Fort Pierce, Fla.
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute cocaine base (Southern District of Florida)
    Sentence: Life imprisonment (Aug. 3, 1995)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

    •              Billy Ray Wheelock – Belton, Tex.
    Offense: Conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine; possession with intent to distribute more than 5 grams of crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school; possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine (Western District of Texas)
    Sentence: Life imprisonment, 10 years’ supervised release, $3,000 fine (Jun. 9, 1993)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

    •              Reynolds Allen Wintersmith, Jr. – Rockford, Ill.
    Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute cocaine and cocaine base; possession with intent to distribute crack (Northern District of Illinois)
    Sentence: Life imprisonment, five years’ supervised release, $1,000 fine (Nov. 23, 1994)
    Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 17, 2014

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