Contemplating lives

Last Friday (Dec. 18) President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 federal inmates and pardoned two. I've been reading the list of names and offenses and length of sentences because I wondered who they were. The reading became a kind of exercise in contemplation spread over three days.

Almost all the crimes are possession of and conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, which, at the time of sentencing, carried many times the length of sentence as possession and conspiracy to distribute the same amount of cocaine in powder form. The disparity was 75 to 1; it has been lowered to 18 to 1, despite expert testimony that powder and crack cocaine are equivalent. Powder is generally a drug used by white people, and crack generally is used by blacks. Because the disparity has been reduced, sentences for crack possession are shorter today, but the sentencing benefit was not retroactive. The inmates receiving these latest sentence commutations have all been in prison 10 to 20 years or more. Here are a few from the middle of the list:

Kevin McDonald – Lawrenceville, NJ
Offense: Conspiracy to distribute cocaine base "crack" (Eastern District of Virginia)

Sentence: Life imprisonment (Oct. 17, 2005)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on December 18, 2016. 

Terry Dennard McNeair – Lexington, NC
Offense: Possess with intent to distribute cocaine base (crack) (Middle District of North Carolina)
Sentence: 360 months' imprisonment; five years' supervised release (Nov. 18, 1996)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016.

Michael McRae – Wadesboro, NC
Offense: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base (Western District of North Carolina)

Sentence: Life imprisonment; 10 years' supervised release (May 22, 2006)
Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to expire on April 16, 2016.

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For many of these inmates, that life sentence is followed by a decade of supervised release, like an exclamation point, emphasizing the dead-end sentence. Now 95 of them have four months to create a plan for life outside -- repairing family relationships, finding a job and a place to stay. Probably these men and women were selected in part because they have plans in place that were submitted with their clemency applications, but still, those plans were hopes. Now the time is at hand.

I'm praying for them during these holy days.


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