Politics

Obama Cuts Loose More Dangerous Prisoners

Latest presidential jail break includes clemency for 35 criminals serving life sentences

The drib-drab early exodus of America’s federal prison population continued Thursday with a Justice Department announcement that President Obama is handing out get-out-of-jail-early cards to another 102 inmates, putting him well ahead of recent predecessors.

And the Justice Department indicated in a brief statement that he is not finished.

“There’s a reason they got the significant sentences. The federal prisons are full of the worst of the worst.”

“The department has made great progress reviewing applications under the president’s clemency initiative to correct unduly harsh and outdated drug sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in the statement. “President Obama has commuted 774 sentences, which is more than were commuted in the prior 66 years preceding his administration combined and we expect to continue to make history with additional commutations in the months ahead.”

The move, coming on the heels of two separate rounds of commutations in August, drew immediate condemnation from the head of the association representing the nation’s career prosecutors.

“Good grief,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

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Cook said Americans should worry not only about the 774 prisoners who will return to the streets sooner than they would have but about the broader move toward leniency in the criminal justice system.

“The bigger picture here is the significant messaging there to law enforcement with these commutations, because these commutations reverse a lot of work done by hardworking state and federal law enforcement officers.”

As with past commutations under Obama, the prisoners who will be getting breaks mostly are serving sentences for drug-related crimes, though the lists includes 14 people convicted on firearms charges.

Thirty-five of the inmates were serving life prison sentences. One of them, Lavelle Henderson, was convicted in 2002 of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise — legal shorthand that prosecutors say describes drug kingpins. According to court records, the Topeka, Kansas, man derived “substantial income or resources” — drug sales totaling more than $486,000 from 1998 to March 2001.

On appeal, Henderson challenged his conviction and sentence on grounds that the drug proceeds were not “substantial” — since $468,000 works out to only $162,000 per year. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument.

“We conclude that it was well within the jury’s province to conclude the amounts proven in this case were indeed substantial,” the judges wrote.

On paper, Henderson would not appear to be the ideal candidate for making the most of another chance; he’s blown a bunch of them already. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Henderson first entered the prison system when he was just 16 years old, following his conviction as an adult on burglary charges. He got parole on five separate occasions, each time violating the conditions of his early release.

Henderson finished that sentence in 1994 and remained free for two years before state, federal, and local law enforcement officers raised his home and seized crack cocaine. Henderson dodged a bullet in March 1997 when a federal jury found him not guilty of drug charges, prompting him to tell the local newspaper that he felt like he had “got a second chance at life.”

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But four months later, California authorities seized six pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine from a van in which Henderson and two others were riding. Prosecutors in Kansas said Henderson oversaw the largest cocaine ring in the Topeka area from 1994 through 2001.

Cook, of the prosecutors’ association, said federal prisoners commonly have long records, histories of violence, or gang ties.

“There’s a reason they got the significant sentences,” he said. “The federal prisons are full of the worst of the worst … And that’s who we’re letting out now.”

The clemency process offers U.S. attorneys and the sentencing judges an opportunity to weigh in. But Cook said the public does not learn of those recommendations or the applicants’ full criminal records and the total amount of drugs they were involved with — and not just the amounts listed in indictments, which often understate the true quantity.

“We have asked the president to be more transparent about the process,” he said. “All of that information should be available to the public.”

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