Fair sentencing yes, but fairness needed in inmate releases

It’s easy to understand the intent behind the current move to reduce prison overcrowding, but are we sure we’re doing it right?

In 2010, when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce federal prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders he specifically targeted those who had been convicted of crack cocaine crimes. In the past, anyone in possession of crack — an inexpensive drug most often used in poor black communities — was routinely sentenced to harsher penalties than those who had dealt in the more expensive powder cocaine, which was used almost exclusively by more affluent whites.

Once the 2010 law went into effect the sentences of inmates convicted of crack-related crimes were recalculated to make them more like today’s sentencing guidelines.

This was great news for Wendell Callahan, a “non-violent” crack dealer serving 12 ½ years in federal prison in Ohio. Callahan was released 4 ½ years early, with officials citing his “good behavior” while in prison.

Guess no one thought Callahan’s previous conviction in a 1999 non-fatal shooting incident mattered, nor did an earlier drug case. And no one red-flagged the violent domestic abuse charges filed against Callahan by his ex-girlfriend, Erveena Hammonds, in 2006. Callahan was released from federal prison on Aug. 8, 2014.

Police say a few weeks ago, on Jan. 18, 2016, Callahan stormed into Hammonds’ apartment and stabbed her to death. Then, in an apparent move to erase eyewitnesses, Callahan did the same to Hammonds’ two young daughters, ages 10 and 7.

This is not to condemn the Fair Sentencing Act but to beg those who decide which convicts get out early to be damn sure of their background and character first.

Late last year, some 6,000 federal inmates won early release. That was just the first wave of President Obama’s initiative to allow up to 46,000 convicts to take part in the largest prisoner release in American history. Sad to say, Alice Johnson didn’t win a spot in this clemency lotto.

Alice, 60, mother of five, grandmother to two girls and two boys, currently resides at a federal correctional institute located in the coincidentally named Aliceville, Alabama.

She was a first-time offender back in 1996 but still sentenced to life in prison for her part in a cocaine conspiracy ring. Alice takes full responsibility for what she did all those years ago. But what she did was little compared to the actions of her 10 co-defendants. They turned state’s evidence against Alice to get lighter sentences for themselves.

Alice says she worked for FedEx for 10 years (seven in management) and held other responsible jobs to help feed and clothe her children. But times were tough, and she admits she became a “go between” in the criminal enterprise, passing phone messages to those who were actually selling the drugs. That was 20 long years ago.

Since her incarceration Alice has been an exemplary prisoner, becoming an ordained minister and serving as a mentor and tutor for other inmates. She also writes faith-based plays and urges other inmates to participate in her prison theater productions.

Alice’s daughter, Tretessa Johnson, tired of hoping someone in the justice system would realize her mother deserves mercy after all this time. So three weeks ago she started an online petition for Alice’s release. At this writing nearly 70,000 signatures have been gathered. Several U.S. congressmen support early release for Alice, as do several pastors, celebrities and prominent community leaders. If and when she is ever free again, Alice says she will work with ex-offenders to help them find jobs.

“I am positive that I will be the one to make a difference, because I have been one of them myself,” she says.

Alice is the type of inmate we should be releasing, not the Wendell Callahan types.

Alice is not alone in meeting the early release criteria but remaining seemingly invisible to those who review requests. The most recent data shows that of the more than 30,000 applications received about half are stuck in the understaffed bureaucratic pipeline. The clock is ticking, since review of a single clemency petition can take more than a year and President Obama leaves office in January 2017.

My hope is twofold: that those who might follow in Wendell Callahan’s footsteps are weeded out quickly, and deserving applicants like Alice Johnson get noticed in time.

Truly repentant convicts are of much more value to society on the outside.

Diane Dimond is a columnist for the The Albuquerque Journal.

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