Clemency is back in the news thanks to the heartwarming tale of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who was sentenced in 1996 for working for a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring to life in prison. This week, Johnson has been released from prison and is reunited with her family, but plenty of people remain stuck behind bars for non-violent drug offenses.
Johnson’s tale is one heard over and over again during this War on Drugs: A first-time nonviolent drug offender finds themselves sentenced to a draconian amount of years, thanks to the prosecutorial practices of the Reagan Era that still linger in America’s criminal justice system. These practices, including mandatory minimum sentences, now seem meant to fill the quotas of the for-profit prison industry instead of being a part of the rehabilitation process. As long as Americans continue to look at drugs as a criminal justice issue and not a public health issue, the cycle will continue.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prison statistics, there are currently 79,036 people serving time in a federal prison for a drug offense, constituting 46 percent of the entire population of federal prisoners.
Many of those prisoners are serving time for marijuana offenses, including those who were compliant with state cannabis laws.
While notable releases have happened since the national conversation around cannabis changed, such as Jeff Mizanskey and Ricardo Ruiz Montes, plenty of pot offenders are still behind bars. Like many, Montes was taking part in state-legal medical marijuana market of California. His co-defendant and Cannabis Now contributor Luke Scarmazzo is still serving out the twenty-year sentence he received in 2008 for operating a medical marijuana dispensary.
“I want to particularly bring to your attention that neither Ricardo nor Luke would be charged with a federal crime today if they were operating a medical marijuana dispensary in California,” said Anthony Papa, the Drug Policy Alliance’s manager of media and artist relations, in comments Cannabis Now after Trump granted Johnson clemency. “Both federal law and Department of Justice charging practices have changed to the extent that their business activity would be legal today. What’s wrong is that these changes should be used to set free individuals like Luke who has already served 10 years in prison.”
Papa is the only person in the history of New York to receive clemency from Gov. George Pataki, in 1996, and then a pardon from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. He continues to pressure lawmakers to use their powers to give folks the second chance he received.
“I had pushed for many years for President Obama and Gov. Cuomo to use their pardon powers more. I kept on their case and pitched this to reporters across the country urging them to write about this issue,” said Papa. “We now need to change the system and push the president and governors to use their pardon powers to seek justice for all individuals that are serving time for marijuana crimes.”
It appears that the only reason Trump was sympathetic to Johnson’s cause was because of the efforts of Kim Kardashian West, the reality television star who visited Trump at the White House on May 31 to advocate on Johnson’s behalf. In previous statements, Trump has advocated that drug dealers should receive the death penalty, which runs counter to his recent clemency move.
For those who don’t have one of the biggest celebrities in the world going to bat for them, one of the most popular tools for those trying to raise awareness for people who deserve clemency is Change.org. It currently hosts a petition by Luke Scarmazzo’s daughter in support of his clemency effort.
Jon Perri, creative director for Nation of Second Chances and director of impact partnerships at Change.org, explained why clemency is such an important tool in showing the success stories of the rehabilitative process.
“Put simply, there are so many people who no longer need to be in prison, if they ever even needed to be there in the first place, who must serve their sentences at the expense of the taxpayer,” Perri told Cannabis Now. “These people and their families suffer immensely for no good reason and clemency at the federal or state level can end that. And for many federal prisoners serving life sentences, clemency from the president is the only way they’ll be released — there is no parole.”
We asked Perri the best thing that people could do to support those still in Alice’s situation, who don’t have someone to go to the White House on their behalf.
“There are so many ways people can help,” he replied, suggesting that people should make an effort to read and share the stories of clemency recipients “because this helps to humanize formerly incarcerated people and gives first-hand insight into the problems with sentencing and prisons.” He also suggested signing petitions on Change.org, because over 20 people who received clemency on from President Obama had a Change.org petition.
Perri shared his thoughts on the current tone of the national conversation around cannabis and whether it would have a positive impact for those serving long sentences for cannabis crimes trying to seek clemency.
“The fact that states are legalizing marijuana and creating a thriving industry certainly makes the fact that people are in prison for marijuana incredibly egregious to any sensible person — but I’m also surprised that it isn’t helping more,” said Perri. “While there aren’t that many people serving life in federal prison for marijuana offenses, there are some who did not have their sentences commuted by President Obama and these cases should really be a priority for President Trump. Those cases include John Knock or Craig Cesal — these are marijuana-only offenders who will die in prison if the president or Congress fails to intervene.”
Perri went on to comment on America’s fastest growing industry.
“If you’re making money in cannabis and not donating to criminal justice reform efforts, that’s problematic,” said Perri. “John Boehner never once used his political power to advocate for people in prison for marijuana. So when I see Acreage Holdings bring him onto their advisory board, I expect him to be advocating not only for legislation that helps regulate the industry but supporting the release of people in prison — it’s literally the least they can do.”
Perri also recommended people check out Buried Alive, a project from the lawyer who represented Alice Johnson, as well as support the work of organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums and CAN-DO Foundation.
TELL US, what are you doing to support non-violent cannabis offenders?