On Friday, July 7th, President Clinton granted sentence commutations to five drug war prisoners. Amy Pofahl, Serena Nunn, Louise House, Shawndra Mills, and Alain Orozco walked out of prison the same day.
The commutations came just days after Pope John Paul II called on governments worldwide to make "a gesture of clemency" to prisoners. On June 30th, the Pope urged "a reduction, even a modest one, of the term of punishment" before Jubilee Day (July 9th), when Catholic bishops around the world visited prisoners.
Pofahl, whose case was featured in Glamour magazine and in the book "Shattered Lives: Portraits From America's Drug War," had already served nearly ten years of a no-parole 24-year sentence on conspiracy charges related to her ex-husband's participation in an Ecstasy production and distribution ring. He got three years of probation in the US, but also served a four-year sentence in Germany.
Pofahl told the authors of Shattered Lives, "Federal agents promised that if I refused to help them gain the information against my husband, they would destroy my life. This they did."
Serena Nunn, 30, had served ten years of a 14-year sentence for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. She was one of several women profiled in a 1997 Minneapolis Star-Tribune series about women who played peripheral roles in drug operations, but received harsher sentences than the principals because they refused to cooperate with federal authorities out of loyalty to their loved ones.
Nunn, a former high school homecoming queen, cheerleader and member of the school newspaper and yearbook staffs, committed the offense of dating the son of a man in federal agents' gun sights for cocaine trafficking. Although many of the group's members received reduced sentences after cooperating with authorities, Nunn refused to inform on her boyfriend. Her sentence was double that of one of the operation's leaders.
Nunn benefited from a campaign by federal, state, and local officials -- including the judge who sentenced her -- to secure her release.
US District Judge David Doty wrote a three-page letter to President Clinton saying he favored reducing her sentence. He told the President he believed that mandatory minimums sentencing guidelines were unfairly applied to Nunn.
But Doty told the Star-Tribune Nunn's case was not unusual. "It happens not daily but weekly that we are giving sentences in drug cases that are horrendous," he said. "None of us are happy with mandatory minimums."
Details of the House, Mills, and Orozco cases were not available at press time.
Organizations devoted to reforming harsh federal drug sentencing laws welcomed the commutations, but said they failed to address the fundamental inequity of federal drug sentencing laws.
"We're thrilled that five sentences were commuted, but we wish Clinton would go further and examine these sentencing laws," Monica Pratt of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM -- http://www.famm.org) told DRCNet.
"This is just selective altruism unless something is done about mandatory minimums," said Pratt. "Unless the laws are corrected, these sorts of injustices will continue. These commutations are great for the people involved, but they are subjective and that's really not fair."
"I wish he would acknowledge something is wrong with sentencing laws, I wish he said we should review mandatory minimums," she added.
White House aides told the Associated Press that Clinton commuted the sentences because they were "too harsh" for the drug crimes under which they were convicted.
The aides added that pardon or commutation requests from other drug war prisoners are making their way to the president's desk for possible action.
Among those seeking commutations is Kemba Smith, a young Richmond, Virginia woman serving 24 years for minor involvement in her boyfriend's cocaine dealing activities. She had turned herself in and was cooperating with authorities, but after the boyfriend was murdered her cooperation was no longer needed.
Smith has been prominently featured in campaigns aimed at redressing the evils of current federal drug sentencing laws, and her story has twice graced the cover of Emerge, a national news magazine focusing on the African American community, under the title "Kemba's Nightmare." (Visit the Kemba Smith Justice Project at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/8899/ for further information.)
Kemba's father, Gus Smith, told DRCNet, "I'm glad for Amy and the others that they're free. It makes me very optimistic," he said. "I think this shows that Clinton recognized these disparities and that they needed to be corrected, and that's a very good sign."
As for Kemba, her father reports that her petition for a pardon was filed on Wednesday. In the meantime, said Gus Smith, "She's doing pretty good, considering. She has probably received 4,000 letters. She's teaching African history and Excel and Powerpoint."
Kemba Smith has done six years now. Without a pardon or commutation she will not be released until 2018. Her father told DRCNet that he wished to thank all of Kemba's supporters and asked them to continue to write the president and ask for a pardon for her. "We'll continue to work for liberty and justice for all," he said.
A massive petition campaign directed at Clinton may help him find the political will to grant more such reprieves. The November Coalition, a drug war prisoners' support group, is organizing the Jubilee Justice 2000 (http://www.jubileejustice.org) petition drive to ask President Clinton to commute the sentences of thousands of federal prisoners.
The November Coalition will collect signatures up until the end of Clinton's term, but will have a massive petition turn-in in Washington, DC, in October. November Coalition leaders will be in the nation's capital to receive the prestigious Letelier-Moffet Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies.
In its letter notifying the Coalition of the award, the Institute wrote, "The selection committee chose your organization in recognition of your collective struggle against one of the great injustices of our time."
The petition drive takes as its cue Biblical passages calling for a Jubilee every 50 years to "proclaim liberty throughout the land" (Leviticus 25:10) and "because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..." (Isaiah 61: 1-2).
In his introduction to the Jubilee campaign, Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, wrote: "Jubilee Justice 2000 is a campaign to educate the public about the need for sentencing reform, and ultimately to persuade the President to commute the sentences of thousands of Federal prisoners before he leaves office."
If the manner in which last week's commutations were announced is any indication, Clinton needs all the political pressure such a campaign can provide. The commutations were the last item on a daily press list of White House activities, and they were announced late on a Friday afternoon, ensuring that mass media coverage, if any, would occur over the weekend, when fewer people are watching the news.