ATLANTA – Doing time in prison, Garry L. Jones said, impacts more than just the inmate who got sentenced.
“Once a person goes to prison, it doesn’t just effect that one person,” he said. “It effects everyone in that family. Imagine getting 35 years, and then the system comes out and says, ‘Oh, we over-sentenced you,’ and then you get out. For a lot of inmates, your family and loved ones’ situation has changed. It’s a travesty.”
Nearly 2,000 inmates in federal prison started getting released today. The inmates had been serving time – in many instances, more than two decades in a federal institution across this county — on crack cocaine charges. The inmates are being released back into the community because of the Fair Sentencing Act, passed by Congress last year, which closes the gap in sentencing guidelines for those convicted on charges for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
Despite their release, every inmate will be supervised by the U.S. Probation Office and any violation could result in a revocation and being sent back to prison.
This issue has been a passionate cause for years for Jones, who has spent time in prison – though never as an inmate. He’s a retired lieutenant with the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee, and he now lives in Atlanta.
After retiring, he formed Advocate4Justice, a non-profit group committed to a more humane treatment of inmates, with a goal of bringing justice, he said, back to the criminal justice system. One of his major causes was to eliminate what he has long viewed as unfair sentencing in the nation’s drug laws.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reflected Congress’s view that crack cocaine was a more dangerous and harmful drug than powder cocaine. By the mid-1990s, many activists were complaining loudly that the sentencing laws were unfair and discriminatory. Congress eventually ordered the U.S. Sentencing Commission to determine whether these mandatory minimum sentencing laws were discriminatory, and the commission recommended new sentencing guidelines amendments to establish equity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, while assigning greater weight in drug offense sentencing to factors such as weapons use, violence, or injury to another person.
It eventually led to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Obama in August 2010. It reduces the disparity between U.S. federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio, based on the number of grams of cocaine in possession. The law also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
“The inmates were over-sentenced, and now they can taste freedom,” Jones said. “I fought for a long time to bring attention to these bad laws.”
Jones said this should have happened a long time ago – and that the problem with the releases going on today is that the inmates are getting sent home to a tough economic climate that will leave them struggling to find a job. The nation’s unemployment rate remains above 9 percent today.
“The sad thing about this situation is they have been released to a bad economy,” Jones said. “It’s hard enough for the average individual to find a job, but now it’s going to be hard for these inmates to survive, and I’m just worried that if inmates get in trouble, society will say they shouldn’t have been let out in the first place. I’m glad it happened, I just don’t like the timing of it. If they had done this a while back, when the economy was good, this would have given the inmates a chance to have a good shake. Today, some inmates won’t be able to survive. Some inmates will commit crimes just to get back in there. I hate to say that, but it will happen.”
“It is a great victory,” said Vikki Hankins, who runs the Orlando chapter of Advocate4Justice. “It’s a real victory for them to take that crack cocaine-powder cocaine ratio even further down, in terms of it being almost equal.”
Even more important, she said, is that Congress recognized the law must be applied retroactively — which is an acknowledgement that so many people now in federal prisons for long crack cocaine sentences were treated unfairly.
“Initially when they changed the law, they didn’t make it retroactive,” said Hankins, who has been named the official spokesperson for the agency that works on behalf of inmates. “It was an oversight for them not to make it retroactive.”
Finally Congress corrected that oversight, Hankins said, bringing a sense of fairness back to the sentencing laws.
“It is a great thing to make it fair – and what I mean by fair is if they had left the laws the way they had, it means the people who got sentenced today would have gotten a fair sentence, but not the ones who had been sentenced years ago. By making it retroactive, that made it fair to the people already incarcerated.”
Jones doesn’t expect Congress or the Obama administration to make any further changes to the sentencing laws.
“I think it’s the best this administration is going to do,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to revisit this issue of crack cocaine any more. They reduced the penalties for people who have been over-sentenced for crack cocaine. It’s been a long time coming, and people have died in the prisons waiting for this. Even though it’s 1,900 people getting out today, it’s going to affect 12,000 people altogether. It only applies to non-violent offenders. You can’t have any violence in your background, you can’t have any violence in the institution. They go through your record, they go through your past before they release you. I think they did it in a way that wouldn’t cause an uproar with the public.”
Jones is the author of the newly released book “I Wasn’t Raised to Play by Their Rules,” about his experience working in the federal prison system and the harassment he endured that led to an early retirement. He said a big problem was that the system had eliminated federal parole for inmates, so those serving long sentences had few reasons to conform their behavior so they could get an early release.
“The reason why I started the organization Advocate4Jjustice was to reinstate federal parole,” he said. “I thought if we could implement federal parole, the people inside the prison would have something to look forward to. They would know they can come up for parole.”
That’s still a passionate cause for Advocate4Justice, he said, along with convincing states like Florida to make it easier for convicted felons to get their civil rights restored after they get out of prison.
Florida has joined several other states – including Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa – in establishing a waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, serve in the military, and obtain certain occupational licenses.
Earlier this year, Florida’s Executive Clemency Board voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get full restoration of their civil rights. The change requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights.
Jones said this is too long to make felons wait before they can become full members of society again.
“I feel bad, because I know the label that will be put on the people who get out,” he said. “Where we’re going now with Advocate4Justice is the voting issue, to get the inmates’ civil rights restored.”
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