President Barack Obama commuted prison sentences last Friday for five men convicted solely on marijuana possession and trafficking charges, among 95 people granted clemency. Nearly all of the 95 were convicted for drug offenses, most related to cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin. Two of the five behind bars for cannabis were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in Florida.
Edward Betts, an Illinois prisoner granted clemency under executive order, was convicted in 1992 for his role as a small-time courier in a marijuana-distribution organization whose kingpins received relative slaps on the wrist. Sentenced to 30 years, Betts fell prey to an extraordinary outcome required by federal guidelines. According to the federal Seventh Circuit reviewing the harshness of Betts’ sentence in its 1994 appeal decision, the original sentencing judge whose hands were likewise tied from reducing the sentence “remarked that in his 20 years on the bench, he had never faced a more draconian situation.”
Betts will have served nearly 24 years of his sentence when he is released in April.
Now in ill-health and nearing 70, Charles “Fred” Cundiff was arrested in 1991 as part of a reverse sting operation targeting Florida marijuana distributors that swept up nine people. Although it appeared Cundiff played a tiny role, if at all, the nature of conspiracy charges meant that everyone charged would be held accountable for the full weight of the illegal substance regardless of individual culpability. Because the married father of three had two earlier pot convictions for growing during the 1970s, he was hit with mandatory federal sentencing guidelines that required him to serve life without the possibility of parole.
Cundiff, who will not be released for another full year, on December 18, 2016, says not enough Americans understand “the government sells our souls for money to corporations who rely on cheap prison labor.”
Another beneficiary of Obama’s clemency announcement is Chad Latham, a Tacoma, Washington man convicted in 2004 of growing more than 2,000 plants. To look at his inventive “Ferris Wheel” grow setup is to see the kind of picture proudly displayed by grower entrepreneurs in cannabis magazines today.
Latham will now only serve 13 years of his 15-year sentence, and be released into a state where both medical and adult cannabis use is legal.
In Texas, Juan Mendoza-Cardenas will be released in April, saving eight years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
Perhaps the best known of those whose sentences the president commuted, smuggler William “Billy” Dekle personifies the hero of more than one Jimmy Buffett ballad. A former Marine and experienced pilot, Dekle flew transports of marijuana shipments into Florida for various Central and South American operators during the 1970s and ’80s. Having had one federal and two state felony convictions already for those activities, and refusing to plea bargain by testifying against others, Dekle found himself facing the mandatory sentencing guideline of life without parole when he was convicted in 1990 in a conspiracy to transport marijuana.
When the Willie Nelson fan is released in April 2016, he has a simple plan to head home, “because that’s where my family is.”
The White House’s holiday announcement brings the total number of commutations during Obama’s presidency to 194, compared with 66 pardons, an inverse of the high pardon-low commutation proportion pattern of recent presidents. The raw number also reverses recent trends, as Obama has now commuted only five fewer sentences (194) than the previous seven presidents combined (199).
Still, before Richard Nixon’s downfall helped bring party politics into commutations and pardons, presidents granted clemency much more commonly. Before departing office, Obama may catch Lyndon Johnson’s 226 commutations, but has quite a ways to go to surpass numerous 20th century presidents: Woodrow Wilson (1,366); Calvin Coolidge (773); Franklin Roosevelt (488); Herbert Hoover (405); Warren Harding (386); Theodore Roosevelt (363); and William Taft (361).
While understandably elated for the prisoners receiving commutation, advocates for nonviolent drug offenders like Cheri Sicard, a former vice-president of the CAN-DO Foundation, says much more can and should be done.
“I am deeply disappointed for the many marijuana lifers left behind,” Sicard told Mother Jones. “I am in regular contact with them and their families, and I know the anticipation that comes with waiting for the clemency announcements, as well as the subsequent devastating blow it is not to see their names on the list.”
Notably, the United States is not the only North American nation facing increasing pressure from its citizens for justice over cannabis convictions. As Canada’s new government turns toward more enlightened cannabis policy, the Canadian press reports its citizens now calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reverse recent conservative clemency policy and commute sentences of Canadian cannabis prisoners.
What do you think? Will we continue to see movement in the U.S. and Canada toward commutation of non-violent drug sentences?