Last month, Eugene Haywood, a client of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, received clemency from President Barack Obama. Haywood’s release came after he served 14 years of a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime.
Judith Miller, Haywood’s lawyer and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law in the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, is using Haywood’s case to advocate for criminal justice reform, particularly in the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Haywood was one of 95 individuals granted a commutation as part of the President’s new clemency initiative, which encourages qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences reduced.
“Part of what’s so incredible about this sentencing scheme is how easy it is to get to an enormous mandatory minimum sentence for relatively little misconduct…If you’re being charged in federal court for a drug crime, you can be a multiple murderer and have a lower mandatory minimum sentence than a guy who sells drugs on the corner,” Miller said.
Haywood had been dealing crack cocaine since age 15 and had two prior convictions for which he received prison sentences of 60 days and two years, respectively. When he was charged in federal court for drug possession with intent to distribute at age 25, the prosecutor had the option of filing two enhanced charges against him because of his prior convictions. By law, judges must impose the minimum sentences that come with the enhanced charges chosen by prosecutors.
“It was wrong to sentence Mr. Haywood to death in prison, which is what a sentence of ‘life without parole’ means. Life without parole says that a 25 year old man who barely had a chance can never change, that he will never have anything to contribute to society,” Miller said.
Mandatory minimum sentences also deny the possibility of rehabilitation, Miller said. According to her, Haywood works three jobs, studies in a yearlong technical certificate program, and helps pay child support with his prison earnings.
Miller said that the Obama administration’s clemency initiative seeks the extraordinary few, which can’t achieve broad federal sentencing reform.
“[Obama] is trying to find the needle in the haystack—the people, like Mr. Haywood, who are suffering from unjust sentences and who also are the most deserving of mercy…Mr. Haywood eventually had the maturity and insight to use his time in prison to become a new man, and the Bureau of Prisons offered him opportunities to make that possible. But what about someone slightly less insightful, who responded to the hopelessness of a life sentence by withdrawing instead of throwing himself into rehabilitation?” Miller said.
As an alternative to Obama’s initiative, Miller suggests a model for using clemency to address systemic problems within the criminal system. She cites the historical example of President Gerald Ford, who pardoned over 14,000 Vietnam War draft dodgers after the war, and notes that the current president could work on the same scale for federal sentencing.
Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who has worked extensively in sentencing and clemency policy, also expressed his qualms with the current system of mandatory minimum sentences.
“If we are going to have mandatory minimums at all, they should be tied to the profit an individual takes from drug trafficking,” Osler said. “That way we will get to the real kingpins, instead of those who will immediately be replaced in a market economy, like Mr. Haywood…Overall, we need to recognize that narcotics are a business, and you don’t shut down a business by sweeping up low wage labor.”