The clock is ticking; Clemency Project volunteers needed now
The clock is ticking; Clemency Project volunteers needed now
What do Valarie Bozeman of Pompano Beach, Nathaniel Brown of Orange Park, Mark Anthony Jones of Boynton Beach, Roy Larry Lee of St. Petersburg, Marlon McNealy of St. Petersburg, and Jeffrey Jerome Toler of Pensacola have in common?
All are Floridians sentenced to life in federal prison for cocaine convictions, and President Obama commuted their sentences so they can be freed.
What do the Koch Brothers, civil rights activist Van Jones, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the NAACP, and Newt Gingrich all have in common?
They are what President Obama calls “unlikely bedfellows” in agreeing with his actions to free such nonviolent federal inmates. The bipartisan effort aims to undo the draconian war-on-drugs sentences of the recent decades and reduce America’s overcrowded prisons and jails that keep 2.2 million people behind bars at a cost of $80 billion a year, according to Obama.
So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 nonviolent drug offenders who have served at least 10 years in federal prison, have no significant prior convictions, and have demonstrated good conduct in prison — men and women whose sentences, if imposed today, would be much shorter.
Each one received a personal letter from Obama that said: “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of the opportunity.”
More than 30,000 have sought relief, but the clock is ticking to review petitions and get those who meet the criteria to Washington, D.C., by January 20, 2016, in order to give the Obama administration a year to consider them and get them to the president before his term ends.
The Clemency Project 2014 — a working group of lawyers and advocates including the Federal Defenders, ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ABA, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — is racing against the clock to screen and file the clemency petitions.
One volunteer recruiter is Nellie L. King, a criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach, who serves on the board of NACDL, is a past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and sits on the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission.
She urges Florida lawyers — regardless if you have any experience in criminal law — to join in this massive pro bono effort.
“I believe lawyers can most effectively represent their clients by involving themselves in efforts which improve the system and impart change for the people we serve,” King said. “For me, sitting on the sidelines is not an option.
“As a member of The Florida Bar, Clemency Project 2014 represents a way for all of us to stand for something. I am passionate about the clemency initiative announced by the White House, and lawyers who participate in this endeavor are making history.
“It is, simply stated, the right thing to do.”
Shrieking With Joy
One clemency case, profiled in the Sun Sentinel, is a Broward County woman named Valarie Bozeman aka Theresa Brown. Now a 48-year-old mother and grandmother who served more than 20 years, she was sentenced in 1993 to mandatory life in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, an enhanced penalty because she had prior state drug convictions.
Her defense at trial was that she was mentally and physically abused by the leader of the drug gang and she only played a minor role. U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro, the trial and sentencing judge, advocated for her early release, according to her defense team.
Federal Public Defender Michael Caruso, in the Southern District of Florida, said Bozeman “shrieked with joy” when he called to tell her Obama had given her a reprieve. He described her as a “very, very small-time street-level dealer” struggling with her own addiction and then got involved with an abusive big-time dealer. In prison, she worked as a chaplain’s clerk, data processor, and call center employee through UNICOR, a government corporation that uses prison labor to provide services and produce goods.
“This is a woman who is completely reformed. She is ecstatic that she can get back to South Florida. She just wants to be reunited with her family and be a productive member of society,” Caruso told the Sun Sentinel.
King has also represented defendants in federal court who had two relatively minor prior offenses and were looking at life in prison. She has had conversations with judges who admit they went back to chambers and wiped away tears because they believed the harsh sentences imposed were wrong.
“As a lawyer, we expect to have an impact on our clients. In the world of criminal defense, however, there are often bad days, days you don’t ever forget over the course of your career. You remember each one,” King said.
“The cases which haunt me are the ones where there was, literally, nothing more I could do. There was nothing the judge could do. To stand next to a client and hear the judge lament the fact that he or she must impose a life sentence on a nonviolent drug offender due to sentencing guidelines, and nothing more, leaves a mark.”
Tying Judges’ Hands
Federal Public Defender Randy Murrell, in the Northern District of Florida, also knows the frustration of representing nonviolent drug offenders facing life sentences. He gave the example of a crack cocaine case, where the defendant had two minor drug offenses and then sold $15 worth of crack to an undercover agent and gets charged in federal court. With enhancements to sentences for prior drug convictions, he said, that defendant would be sentenced to life.
“Everyone had a sense it wasn’t right. Judges felt like their hands were tied and didn’t have any choice,” Murrell said.
“North Florida is a little unique in that we had some of the harshest sentences in the country. One of the reasons is that the longest sentences were the product of these drug enhancements, if you had a prior felony drug conviction. In most places in the country, it was relatively rare and was reserved for the more aggravating cases.
“But in North Florida, they filed a drug enhancement in every case. And, as a matter of policy, we don’t have plea negotiations in North Florida.”
At first, Murrell said, he thought his office could file the clemency petitions. But the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said the federal public defenders do not have that authority.
“But a lot of us volunteered to review cases and we pass that information on to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,” Murrell said. “I do think they are having difficulty getting enough lawyers. It’s gotten to be a big project.”
Murrell was busy going through a list of 90 cases where his office originally represented the defendants, and trying to finish by the end of August.
Defense attorney George Blow, who has represented drug defendants in the Northern District, said, “I have heard judges remark in court, ‘This is what I would do if my hands weren’t tied.’ They would flat out announce that on the record.”
He said he had a client with one prior conviction for possession of “a miniscule amount of pot” in state court and got probation. But that was enough to trigger 10 or 20 years of minimum mandatory in federal court.
In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the disparity for harsher sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine, but the president said much more needs to be done to undo past injustices.
“The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined,” Obama said at the NAACP conference in Philadelphia in July.
“Murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, and drug kingpins” need to stay locked up, the president said, but nonviolent drug offenders do not deserve sentences of 20 years to life.
“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society.
“You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid,” Obama said.
King is hoping to recruit and help train volunteers for the Clemency Project that would help correct unfair punishments levied in the past for at least some defendants, if not all.
“This Clemency Project represents a form of redemptive legal practice which will leave a huge impact on the inmates we aid, as well as foster long-term, systemic change,” King said. “We can take those bad days back and right the wrongs of the past. And if not now, when?”