Tampa man is one of eight sentenced with mandatory minimums that President Obama released
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01/07/14 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:
Tags: Ezell Gilbert, mandatory minimum sentences, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, NAACP, Voting rights

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The NAACP focuses on restoring voting rights to ex-felons. This book is a list of all the individuals in the state of Florida who have had rights restored, but don't know it.


photo by Janelle Irwin


Eight federal sentences commuted by President Barack Obama last month have revitalized criticism of mandatory minimums. Critics of the sentencing argue they can result in what the president called unduly harsh sentences.

Greg Newburn is the Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“Cases are different. Defendants are different. Crimes are different. Instead of punishing an offender, a particular defendant in a particular set of circumstances, we just pass a sentencing scheme that covers a category of crime and completely ignores any differences between defendants, between victims, between offenses and these things are relevant.”

All eight of the individuals whose sentences were commuted were serving time for possession of crack cocaine. Prior to the 2010 signing of the Fair Sentencing Act, possession of crack cocaine was punished more severely than powder cocaine.

“These are pharmacologically identical substances, but I think the hysteria surrounding the crack epidemic in the 80s made Congress particularly keen on really dropping the hammer on crack offenses. So, you got this 100-1 sentencing disparity.”

The new law reduced that disparity to 18-1, but it isn’t retroactive – meaning some people are still serving sentences that would have been shorter if they had been imposed after 2010. One man being released from his sentence early is Ezell Gilbert of Tampa. Yvette Lewis, political action chair with the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP said his charges were more severe because of mandatory minimum sentences taking into account things like prior offenses and whether or not a firearm was present during the commission of a crime.

“Because he had the gun charge. He had a firearm on him even though he didn’t discharge it, but he had it on him and it caused him to score so high when it came to the legal system so the judge had no choice but to give him that because he had other prior convictions.”

In a statement from his attorney, federal public defender Allison Gualgliardo wrote, “Mr. Gilbert had been serving an erroneous career offender sentence of 24 years. Indeed, by January 2009, Mr. Gilbert had already served the time that would have been required of him had he not been erroneously sentenced as a career offender.” Critics of mandatory minimum sentencing argue there is no wiggle room for judges to weigh circumstances. Newburn from the Florida anti-mandatory minimum group said that’s why the presidential commutation is so important.

“The folks who wrote the constitution understood that there’s an inherent severity to the criminal justice system that almost inevitably leads to extreme injustices and they recognize that without a pardon power that was vested in the executive, that the criminal justice system would become unnecessarily cruel.”

But the unbending rules forced upon judges by things like the 10-20-Life law which dictates sentences for gun-related offenses are clogging the prison system with people who otherwise wouldn’t be serving such long sentences. Newburn said these situations are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

“We’re taking people who are defending themselves and end up getting twenty years in prison because they reject plea offers and go to trial and get convicted. On the drug side, you get people who just have a handful of prescription pills, for instance, and end up getting three, fifteen or even 25-year sentences. These are non-violent, sometime first-time offenders who are getting obscenely long prison sentences and there’s just no public safety benefit. There’s just nothing that taxpayers get in return for these things.”

Other critics worry about the link between long prison sentences and recidivism rates. Lewis, from the NAACP, said it’s hard for ex-felons, or what that group calls returning citizens, to stay out of trouble after serving hard time.

“Especially when a person has been in jail over 5-10 years, consensus say that it’s really hard to get acclimated back to the community and then now you’re asking for that person to be a productive citizen and it’s so extremely hard for them to do that because times have changed a great deal.”

Some conservative groups like Florida TaxWatch have come on board with reforming sentencing laws and implementing better educational resources for inmates that will maximize their chances out of prison. Lewis said many of the programs that used to exist have been cut over time.

“Locking someone up in the prison system, you’re not rehabbing them. Let’s face it. At one point they did have a lot of programs in there, but they have stripped those programs. So, you’re not rehabbing them. And then when they get ready to get out, that whole transition period from going from locked up in a prison cell to be transitioned to going back into society, they’re not getting that structure. They’re just releasing them with a bus ticket and two hundred dollars.”

The NAACP is also focusing on restoring rights to prisoners once they are released. Right now, returning citizens must wait five years with a clean record before voting rights can be restored. Lewis said citizens should get that right back the second they’re done serving their sentences.

“If you’re telling these people that they’re not even citizens enough to vote, than how do they feel walking down the street? Wow, a slave was counted as what – one third of a person.

Seven of the eight inmates commuted by President Obama are set to be released in the spring. Ezell Gilbert, the Tampa man, was released immediately.

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