From Grammys to Prison to Freedom

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit organization that fights for drug sentencing reforms, about half of the more than 200,000 federal inmates are in prison for drug offenses. Some of them, according to the organization, are serving multiple life terms.

And, like Forte, prisoners serving federal drug sentences don't have the benefit of judicial discretion when it comes to individual circumstances. Judges can't take into account a convict's personal history, statements, education or previous criminal record.

"We certainly are thrilled to see him get out because his sentence was too long," said Molly Gill, staff attorney and commutations project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Gill noted that some prisoners are serving state sentences of less than 14 years for crimes like murder and rape. And the stringent sentencing regulations, combined with few appeal opportunities, leave prisoners in Forte's situation few options but to appeal to the president.

But Gill was quick to point out that Forte, who became a member of her organization after his incarceration, has always accepted responsibility for his crime.

"He made a really bad decision at a difficult time," she said. "It goes to that question, how much should you be punished for one bad decision, especially as a young person?"

Simmons said he hopes Forte will use his story and celebrity status to bring attention to the rest of the prisoners who were sentenced without any consideration given to their individual circumstances.

"I really do hope for this to be a statement," he said.

For years, Simmons has been a staunch advocate of reform of New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws, which impose mandatory sentencing at the state level.

"I think the whole thing is foul," he said of mandatory drug sentencing laws.

Simmons pointed out that many of the prisoners in these cases are first-time offenders who will learn more about the drug culture inside prison than they ever would have on the streets. And when they are released, they bring that knowledge back to the streets of their communities, he said, calling it a "horrible cycle of negativity."

Simmons said he'd rather see more attention paid to treatment and educational programs for these offenders.

"There are many, many people all over this country who deserve pardons," he said.

More than 2,300 people applied for pardons or commutations in fiscal year 2008, which ended Sept. 30. The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney has been inundated with clemency requests in the waning days of the Bush administration. In the first month of the 2009 fiscal year alone, the office has received 284 requests, according to the department's statistics.

It is unclear, however, how many of those were by prisoners jailed on drug charges.

Bush still has time to authorize more pardons and commutations. But Gill said it would be "really dangerous" to try to read into his selections what he thinks about public policy regarding the minimum sentencing laws.

A Guarded Process

The White House and the Office of the Pardon Attorney are fiercely tight-lipped about why certain prisoners are pardoned or receive commuted sentences.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto told that his office does not comment on specific cases.

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