As Obama's term ends, thousands hope for clemency

Man serving life sentence is now a free man
Man serving life sentence is now a free man

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Man serving life sentence is now a free man 02:12

Story highlights

  • More than 13,000 inmates are anxiously waiting to see if Obama commutes their sentences
  • Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has criticized Obama's clemency initiative in the past

Washington (CNN)Forty-year-old Robert Evans said he fell into the wrong crowd as a 17-year-old teen.

"I think when I was young, I made a couple bad decisions. I started hanging out with older people. My dad struggled with a disability and I didn't have a father figure in my house."
Those bad decisions led to a distribution of a controlled substance charge.
"The juvenile justice system failed me," Evans said. Years later, he was charged again with three counts of marijuana possession and conspiracy to sell cocaine, and it was three strikes, you're out for the Alabama native: a judge sentenced him to life in prison in 2009 factoring in his previous drug charges.
"I felt my sentence was unjust" Evans said, but he still held out hope. "I didn't know how it was going to come. I knew I was going to get a blessing."
That blessing came last year when he became eligible to put in a petition to President Barack Obama for his sentence to be commuted.
"I didn't have no hope at all to now having all the hope in the world," Evans said.
But that hope is now beginning to dwindle for Evans. He is currently one of more than 13,000 inmates anxiously waiting for their requests to be granted before Obama leaves office next week, according to the Department of Justice.
"Every time the list comes, I've been hoping and praying I'm on it," Evans said.
Sentence reform advocates feel a sense of urgency because they doubt the Trump administration will continue Obama's initiative to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders, some of whom are serving four or more times the sentence they would receive today, according to administration officials.
"(Trump) is a law-and-order president and many of the people seeking clemency were incarcerated under law-and-order presidents," said Cynthia Roseberry of the Clemency Project. "I'd hope he would be able to continue (the initiative), but based on statements he has made, I'm not positive that he will."
Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a supporter of eliminating discrepancies between crack and cocaine offenders. But he also has criticized Obama's clemency initiative in the past, saying Obama "is playing a dangerous game to advance his political ideology," adding, "Unfortunately, history and common sense tell us that rushing to release federal prisoners will have long-lasting, harmful consequences, particularly for our nation's most vulnerable communities."
During Sessions' confirmation hearing, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin questioned him on why he doesn't support retroactively granting reduced sentences to inmates sentenced under mandatory minimums.
"If you refuse to even acknowledge the fundamental injustice of many of our sentencing laws, why should you be entrusted with the most important criminal prosecution in America?" Durbin asked.
Sessions claimed that comment was unfair.
"I stepped out against my own Republican administration and said openly on the floor of the Senate that I believe these crack cocaine laws were too harsh, particularly disadvantageous to the African-American community," Sessions replied.
The White House said it has granted more clemency petitions than the past 11 presidents combined, with more than 1,000 petitions granted last year alone.
"The President looks at each one on an individual basis and then decides. I think we will keep going until the end and we'll continue to review," White House chief counsel Neil Eggleston recently told reporters.
With one week left, Evans hopes his clean record while behind bars and self-improvement programs he has taken will convince Obama to grant his commutation.
"I sowed good seeds my whole time of incarceration," Evans said. "The first thing I did was I got my relationship with God right. The second thing I did was get my GED."
Evans -- who is a father of two biological children and two stepchildren -- said if he's released from his life sentence he will work on being a good father and a motivational speaker for young kids who may fall into the same trap he did as a teenager.
"My plan is I just want to inspire people to do the right thing. I don't wish this on nobody," he said. "This is not a place I would want to spend the rest of my life. It's easy to get into but hard to get out."
If his petition goes unanswered or is denied, Evans admitted he's most worried about his kids.
"I've never told them I have a life sentence," he said, adding that he's particularly concerned about his 16-year-old son, RJ.
"Me and my son are best friends. I couldn't dare tell him. I don't know what he might do."