The call for clemency applications

A couple of years ago, a woman I'll call Ann saw me give a television interview about prison sentencing reform. She phoned me right away to tell me about her son, who, she said, received a 10-year sentence in federal prison for his second marijuana possession. A lawyer was filing an appeal, but she didn't know if he would be successful.

Alas, I didn't have any hope to hold out to her. Congress seems even less likely than the Missouri legislature to shorten drug possession sentences, and such reform benefits are almost never retroactive, though there's no reason they couldn't be.

Ann phoned me every couple of months. We both called our congressman, Lacy Clay, but his office had nothing to offer. I put Ann's name and number into my phone, just in case.

Then, three months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech inviting inmates with nonviolent drug charges to file clemency appeals. I called Ann and told her that her son, I'll call him Charlie, should file a clemency appeal right away. Charlie said no -- it was to remedy the crack/powder cocaine disparity. I said Holder had said nonviolent drug charges. He was inviting clemency appeals.

A couple of weeks ago, Ann asked if we could meet to go over Charlie's clemency appeal. I was out of town and couldn't meet until after Easter. We met face-to-face for the first time April 22. I brought the form, directions on filling it out, and my computer so we could do a rewrite of Charlie's statement of why he was petitioning for clemency.

Charlie, shame on him, had sent his mother the 10-page form with just his name printed on the first page. He had two years of college, I learned, but he had made no effort. (That's why I'm not using his real name. I think he is behaving badly, but I don't want to put his appeal at risk.) Incidentally, this second conviction, based on a plea agreement, was for dealing and money laundering, not simple possession. I saw the papers.

I told Ann that in my opinion, Charlie has to fill out the section describing his crime, and he has to be scrupulously honest. He also has to fill out the section requesting clemency. He must write about a commitment to be a good father, get a job, marry his son's mother, continue his education, get drug treatment, and support his dear mother, who has worked tirelessly for his release. Ann wanted to make the argument that the prosecutor didn't keep an agreement to reduce Charlie's sentence if he informed on the others. Clemency isn't where you revisit failed negotiations, I said. Ann wanted to hire a lawyer. I said it might be worth the money to relieve her of the pressure of getting the form completed, but that in my opinion -- and I didn't know anything for sure -- the clemency application would be better received if Charlie filled it out himself.

Interestingly, on Easter Monday, the day before we met, an attorney, probably a federal public defender, distributed forms in the prison where Charlie is held and offered to help inmates who couldn't complete the forms themselves. And the day Ann and I met, it hit the news that Eric Holder is aggressively seeking clemency applications, targeting those who have served at least 10 years in prison.

Charlie has served three of his 10 years. Remember, there's no parole in the federal system. I think he has as good a chance as anybody of getting clemency from President Barack Obama if he writes a good appeal. And even if he is a jerk, he doesn't deserve 10 years in prison for being a jerk. He was dealing marijuana, not cocaine or heroin. So I'll call Ann back and urge her not to be discouraged.

Charlie will need a lot of help when he gets out. All these men and women will need help. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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