On Tuesday, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 111 prisoners
Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd: We must share stories of those most affected by misguided appeals for law and order
Editor’s Note: Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd is an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate. She has handled several successful clemency petitions, including the nationally reported cases of Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark. Barnett-Bryd was named one of America’s most outstanding young lawyers by the American Bar Association. Follow her @MsBKB. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother, I know that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison.
Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities across America. The United States makes up nearly 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the world’s prison population. Today, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country.
The dramatic growth in incarceration as a result of the failed war on drugs cannot be ignored. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased tenfold since 1980. In addition, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drugs.
While the statistics are astonishing, to truly understand the issue, we must look beyond the numbers and see the human capital sacrificed in the name of misguided appeals for law and order. The human element is rarely addressed but is necessary to inspire and drive the change needed to reform our criminal justice system.
#17061-112. This number was assigned to my client Corey Jacobs 17 years ago when he began serving a life sentence in federal prison for nonviolent drug convictions. Corey had no prior felony convictions. But with no parole in the federal system, he has been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.
Over two decades ago, Corey, now 47, began dealing drugs with a small group of college friends in Virginia. Though Corey was not a kingpin, he received an essential death sentence largely because three of his co-conspirators testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences. Due to federal laws, Corey was held accountable for all “reasonably foreseeable” quantities of drugs attributed to the five other people involved in the conspiracy. Absolutely no dimension of his conduct was violent.
Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison, Corey has worked diligently to prove that he is deserving of a second chance. He has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming, completed three self-improvement residential programs and received over 100 learning certificates that have enhanced his education and personal development.
Corey is the only defendant on his case still behind bars after a co-defendant, who was also serving life without parole, received an unquestionably deserving grant of clemency from President Barack Obama in May of this year.
Notably, Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr., who sentenced Corey to life in prison under mandatory sentencing laws, believes that Corey also deserves clemency. In a letter supporting Corey’s pending clemency petition, Morgan confirmed he is “certain” that he “would not have imposed a life sentence on [Corey] had the laws at the time not virtually mandated it.”
While there is little doubt that a prison sentence was warranted in Corey’s case, he doesn’t deserve to die in a cell because of it. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is, short of execution, the harshest punishment available in America. It screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption. It suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. And, in Corey’s case, it is a punishment that does not fit the crime.
Recently, I went to visit Corey in prison to discuss his pending clemency petition. As I sat in the bleak, cold concrete interior of the attorney-client visiting room, I was struck by Corey’s remorse, intelligence and dedication to bettering himself.
I learned Corey is an avid meditator. He mentioned how he once read nature could enhance the meditation experience, but he had not seen a tree in years. The prison yard is surrounded by daunting, gray brick buildings. The rest of our conversation was a blur because I could not move past the fact that he had not seen a tree. A tree.
Though I never imagined that visiting a United States Penitentiary would change the trajectory of my legal career, the state of consciousness I achieved after meeting Corey empowered me. I no longer wanted to be just a lawyer. I wanted to use this platform to promote the greater good. Because of thousands of cases like Corey’s, three months ago I resigned from my corporate law job to become a full-time advocate for criminal justice reform.
The United States locks up too many people for far too long. Thousands of men and women labor daily in prison under the dark cloud of a sentence that would be substantially lower if handed down under current federal drug laws. Allowing nonviolent drug offenders to languish in prison under outdated and unduly harsh laws is not only morally wrong and inhumane, it is a true indictment of our ailing criminal justice system. We cannot barter human lives for the sake of appearing tough on crime.
Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. Last year the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) was introduced into Congress. This crucial bill would pull back mass incarceration and save taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing mandatory minimums and making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. And yet despite unprecedented bipartisan support, it still has not come to the Senate floor for a vote. We must urge Congress to pass this overdue, life-changing legislation.
But Congress is not the only branch of government beginning to address this injustice. Obama has shown he is committed to reinvigorating the clemency process through his administration’s groundbreaking initiative to prioritize clemency applications for individuals like Corey.
On Tuesday, Obama granted clemency to 111 people. The White House reports that this act of mercy brings the President’s clemency total to more than the last 10 presidents combined. I am hopeful Obama will continue to show dedication to this critical initiative so no one who meets the clemency criteria he set forth is left behind bars when he leaves office.
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Our criminal justice system is tangled in overcrowded prison cells, draconian sentences, shameful sentencing disparities, burdensome incarceration costs and heartbroken children and families. Reform is desperately needed. The time is now for the people who hold the levers of power to believe in humanity and to simply do the right thing.
After all, there is nothing more urgent than freedom.
Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd is an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate. She has handled several successful clemency petitions, including the nationally reported cases of Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark. Barnett-Bryd was named one of America’s most outstanding young lawyers by the American Bar Association. Follow her @MsBKB. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.