SILVER SPRING, MD -- Today the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF) published the nation's first compilation of state-by-state and federal information on executive clemency for prisoners at its Web site - www.cjpf.org
There are about 1.3 million incarcerated persons now serving state sentences and 120,000 sentenced federal prisoners. Tens of thousands of persons are serving a sentence longer than is just, because of mandatory minimum sentencing or other injustices.
These problems have been dramatized by Bob Herbert of The New York Times
this summer in six columns describing unjust drug prosecutions in Tulia, Texas, and the inordinately long sentences that resulted. Many plead guilty to avoid decades-long sentences. Those who plead guilty are almost never able to appeal their sentences -- even if they are, in fact, innocent. Receiving an excessively long sentence is not a basis for an appeal. For such prisoners, often the only remedy is executive clemency.
Last month, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (R) commuted the sentence of Maryann Gomez-Velasquez. She was sentenced to 25 1/2 years in prison because she was addicted to Tylenol with Codeine and forged pain medication prescriptions to feed her addiction.
"Twenty-five and a half years is an inordinately long sentence for a non-violent, victimless crime," Governor Johnson said. By comparison, in New Mexico a person who kills someone while driving under the influence of alcohol receives an average sentence of 11 1/2 years, and the average sentences for rape and 2nd degree murder are approximately 26 and 21 years respectively. Governor Johnson said, "Our drug laws have become so irrational that we actually hand out harsher penalties for forging Tylenol with codeine prescriptions than we do for killing people."
CJPF's Web site provides information on the procedure to obtain clemency and commutation of sentence in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, as well as the federal procedure. It gives prisoners, their attorneys and their families the information they need to apply for an early release from a state or federal prison sentence. Sample application forms are provided for some states and the federal government.
Every state has a mechanism, usually at the governor's discretion, to reduce the sentence of a deserving prisoner, similar to the constitutional power of the President of the United States for federal offenses (Article II, Section 2). But these procedures must be initiated by the prisoner - they and their families need to know what these procedures are.
In 2000, CJPF spearheaded a campaign to commute the sentences of low-level non-violent federal drug offenders. Before he left office, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 21 such prisoners, to much praise. While there are over 120,000 sentenced federal prisoners, there are more than ten times that number of state prisoners. Prison operating costs are significant burdens on the taxpayers of many states, which the economy is currently aggravating.
"We are at a historical moment in which a spirit of justice and compassion is aligned with the necessity to save tax revenues for high priority matters. Clemency enables governors to save hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to mitigate the excesses of the criminal justice system, especially the long sentences of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. CJPF believes the nation needed an easy way to learn the unique and often complex clemency procedures available in each state," said Eric E. Sterling, President of CJPF.
There were 1,236,476 persons incarcerated in state prisons by December, 2000, with the number constantly growing. The number of imprisoned drug offenders is estimated to be in the range of 400,000 persons. Many states have mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses that have been widely criticized by judges and correctional officials because they result in unjustly long sentences. Prisoners sentenced under such laws are often ideal candidates for release to the community.
"We want ex-offenders to rebuild their families and their lives, and to contribute positively to the community and the economy. Keeping people in prison too long is counterproductive as well as wasteful. Common sense tells us: when vital services have to be cut to meet shrinking state revenues it is time to release prisoners who no longer belong there," said Sterling.
# # # The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation is a non-profit center that educates the nation about criminal justice issues, based in Silver Spring, MD. Eric E. Sterling, foundation president, was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, principally responsible for anti-drug legislation, from 1979 to 1989.