Clemency and The Old Ebbitt Grill
Most of the Nonviolent marijuana and other drug offenders serving sentences of life without parole did not receive clemency from President Obama's Clemency Project. They also will not receive any sentencing relief from The First Step Act. They need clemency from President Trump.
In March of 2016 the White House briefing on clemency was hopeful. White House and Justice Department staff spoke about their commitment to clemency for the thousands of offenders serving egregious sentences which have been imposed since the onset of the war on drugs. These sentences have given us the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate of all the countries with functioning representative government.
We were there to celebrate and inspire these current and future acts of great compassion and mercy advocated for by both sides of the political spectrum. Clemency represents a commitment to social justice and to fiscal responsibility. Our prison population is massive and wasteful and invitations to the briefing had been extended to legal scholars, advocacy groups, clemency recipients, the formerly incarcerated and families of petitioners.
I was happy to be invited to have brunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill with about 15 individuals from the briefing. As we arrived at the restaurant the participants began to trickle in. There we were, men and women of all ages, backgrounds, hues of color and vernacular. We were seated at a large comfortable table and proceeded with introductions where necessary and small talk while looking at menus.
A waitress appeared and the usual descriptions of dishes and questions about ingredients and portions ensued. We were obviously not DC residents nor were we regular patrons. The waitress hoped we were enjoying our visit to the capitol. She was engaging and interested in the patrons she served, asking what had we seen and where were we going.
I sat next to Jason Hernandez, who I view as a hero. Jason’s life sentence was commuted by President Obama on December 19, 2013. When our orders were complete the waitress paused, Jason asked her, “Do you know what we all have in common?” She smiled, “No, what is it?” Jason’s answer was direct and a show stopper, raw and informative. “We’ve all been in prison.”
This honest answer said: This is who we are, we’re like you, there’s no reason to fear us, we’re normal and we could be your family.
It was forgotten that I had not been incarcerated but I’ve been in many prisons and know the stories of countless nonviolent drug offenders with sentences of life without parole. I ache for them and their families. I founded Life for Pot to advocate for marijuana offenders with life sentences, but the name of the substance is immaterial. Jason’s sentence was for crack. He founded Crack Open the Door.
I know the humanity of the family members who sit in prison waiting rooms. They hope the screening process will be seamless and they will have a few short hours in a visiting room with their father, mother, husband/wife, sister or brother. Family visits involve elaborate plans, expense and in most cases travel. Sometimes they must crossed the country just to have this short family interaction that will reconnect them with the loved one locked behind bars for the rest of their life.
In 2013, Jennifer Turner, the Human Rights Researcher for the ACLU, completed the report Life without Parole, A Living Death. This research found over 3,000 nonviolent offenders who were serving life without parole in federal prison; the vast majorities were drug offenders. This sentence is unheard of in other developed countries. It is one reason we have 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world’s population.
As I gathered stories of nonviolent incarcerated people with life sentences or de-facto life sentences, I noted a pattern in charging and prosecution that rose to the top. A large percentage of those with life sentences were charged with conspiracy and exercised their right to trial. These two decisions, one made by the prosecution and the other made by the offender may provide some insight into the reason for our disparate sentencing and extreme reliance on incarceration. Conspiracy charges are broad and hold you responsible for the actions of all members of the conspiracy, even if you were not there. Conspiracy charges also allow the prosecution to tell the story through the testimony of co-conspirators testifying for a lesser sentence. Going to trial gives you a sentence that is up to six times higher than those who take a plea.
The reason for my advocacy for clemency and my unease with this sentencing is personal but has become a more universal cry for more moderation in our in our quest for justice.
My youngest sibling, John Knock has served 20 years of a life sentence as a first time marijuana offender. The longing for reuniting him with the family that loves him is fresh. Each visit within the walls of a federal penitentiary leaves us drained, yet somehow renewed knowing that there is hope for mercy and compassion and the promise that we will not have to endure an eternal separation from someone who is integral to the fabric of our lives. John is 68 years of age. I know that he is representative of multitudes, yet singular to me as he has been part of my heart for a life time. He represents thousands.
As Jason Hernandez so gracefully illuminated the humanity of the formerly incarcerated, I would make a plea for those still waiting for the promise.