From Grammys to Prison to Freedom

Bush commuted John Forte's drug sentence after celebrities took up his case.

Nov. 26, 2008— -- Backed by celebrity and legal heavyweights, hip-hop artist John Forte was one of two people whose prison sentences were commuted by President Bush Monday, giving advocates of drug sentencing reform something to celebrate.

While there are tens of thousands of men and women in federal prison because of controversial minimum sentencing laws, Forte, 33, has been a celebrity face for their plight.

Celebrities, including Grammy Award-winning singer Carly Simon and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have been pushing for his early release, saying his 2001 sentence of 14 years in prison for a first-time cocaine offense was too harsh for the crime.

"I just couldn't be more pleased," Simon told Tuesday. "It's been a long time coming."

Simon has been Forte's most outspoken advocate and was the one who posted bail for him after he was arrested. She has known him for years after he befriended Ben Taylor, the singer's son with James Taylor, while the two were enrolled at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Simon sang a duet with Forte on his 2002 album "I, John," which was released when he was already in prison.

Hatch, who wrote the song "Are you Lonely Here With Me?" which Simon recorded, got onboard after the singer lobbied for his help.

"He's an extraordinary young man," Simon said. "And he was the first time I met him. He's even more so now."

Hatch was "key in getting the president to act" on Forte's commutation, Simon told the New York Post. Hatch's offices in Utah and Washington, D.C., did not return messages seeking comment.

Simmons said he got involved with Forte's cause after Simon approached him but said there are many more like him, many in worse circumstances.

"He was one example," he told, "a very high-profile example."

Career Interrupted

Forte, now serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J., will be released Dec. 22, having served 7 years.

He was a gifted musician having shared writing credits on the Fugees' 1996 breakthrough album "The Score," which won that year's Best Rap Album Grammy award. He went on to release a solo album, 1998's "PolySci."

But his career stalled in 2000 after he met a man in a club who offered to help set his music career back in motion if Forte could find women to smuggle drugs into the United States.

When two women carrying 30 pounds of liquid cocaine -- worth about $1.4 million -- were busted in a Houston airport, they named Forte as the man they were supposed to meet. One day later, on July 13, 2000, the women, under police surveillance, delivered the two suitcases containing the cocaine to Forte at the Newark airport in New Jersey.

Forte was arrested but told police during questioning that he believed money, not drugs, were in the suitcases, according to court documents obtained by He was later convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 or more kilograms of cocaine.

Simon and others have argued that Forte did not receive a fair trial and that his sentence was too harsh for a first-time offender who had committed a nonviolent crime.

Fair Sentencing for the Guilty

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.

"The president reviews these cases and considers the recommendation of the U.S. Pardon Attorney and makes careful decisions," he said in an e-mail statement.

In total, Bush announced 14 pardons and two commutations Monday. The other person to receive a commuted sentence was James Russell Harris of Detroit, also in prison on cocaine charges.

"The process really is a black box," Gill said. "The president doesn't have to give a reason."

But Gill said it's likely that all the support Forte had on the outside helped his cause, as it implies that he'll have a strong support network once he's released.

Gill is hoping there will be more people like Forte on Bush's list by the end of the year.

While people do need to be punished for their crimes, she said, the prison system was set up to keep America safe.

"Are we really afraid of John Forte?" she asked.

ABC News' Theresa Cook and Kirit Radia contributed to this report.