After spending 19 years of a life sentence in federal prison on a single felony conviction for selling crack as a teen, 39-year-old Reynolds Wintersmith of Rockford, Ill., learned Thursday that he would be released in April.
Wintersmith was one of eight federal prisoners, all having been convicted in federal court on non-violent drug charges during a time of severe crackdown on drug offenses, to have their sentences shortened by President Barack Obama.
“Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama said in the statement.
Wintersmith’s story was recently a part of a campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union to highlight instances where non-violent prisoners were serving life sentences. Six of the eight prisoners set to be released early were sentenced to life in prison, while the other two were serving more than 20 years.
“President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. “This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system.”
The Boston Globe and other media reported Thursday that Wintersmith’s father is the brother of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s mother – making Wintersmith and the 57-year-old governor first cousins.
However, Patrick spokeswoman Jesse Mermell told the Globe that the governor has “no recollection” of meeting Wintersmith in the past and there is a significant age difference between the two men. Though Patrick and Obama have a close relationship – and Patrick had been aware of the imprisonment of a relative – the governor had not been aware of the commutation ahead of time and did not lobby on Wintersmith’s behalf.
For its part, the White House would not say if Obama knew the two men were related when he signed off on commutation, the Boston Globe reported.
Wintersmith was convicted of possession with intent to distribute crack and a conspiracy charge related to his membership in a gang on Nov. 23, 1994 – a year when Chicago, for example, had well over 900 murders and many were drug- and gang-related. At the time, Federal Judge Patrick Mahoney criticized the sentencing guidelines he was forced to follow.
“It gives me pause to think that that was the intent of Congress, to put somebody away for the rest of their life, but in any event, it’s there,” he said at the time of sentencing, according to news reports.
If convicted today, Wintersmith’s sentence would likely be dramatically shorter. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, matching penalties for crack possession more closely with other cocaine-related offenses, but the law did not apply to those already convicted.
His case gained some attention three years ago when a friend of his contacted federal public defender MiAngel Cody, who then took up the case and filed an application for commutation.
Wintersmith’s mother had died when he was 11 and he was sent to live with his grandmother, a crack dealer in Rockford, with a brother and sister. His grandmother was arrested when he was 16 and, at 17, Wintersmith turned to selling drugs for a gang to support his two younger siblings.
“It shows that the president is focusing on the cases that are most compelling,” said Mark Osler, a professor of law at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Legal scholar P.S. Ruckman, a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, called the decision “historic,” saying that the eight commutations today were the most in a single year since Bill Clinton commuted 40 sentences at the end of his term in 2000 and the most in what Ruckman called “a normal course of affairs” since Jimmy Carter commuted 11 sentences in 1980.
Still he called Obama’s record on commutations “abysmal.”
“He did send a signal that he would do this during his campaign, but his action has not matched the rhetoric,” Ruckman said. “He seems to want to ask Congress to do it when all he needs to do is pick up the pen.”
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people are in prison today on sentences that are inconsistent with today’s guidelines, Ruckman said. A bill introduced earlier this year in the U.S. Senate and being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee would, among making other changes to the federal penal system, retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act to previous convictions.
“We are simply over-prisoned in this country,” said Alan Mills, the legal director for the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. “(Obama) missed an opportunity to really make a statement. What he should have done is much bolder. That would have sent a message. This is really a mostly symbolic move.”
Six of the eight prisoners are set to be released on April 17, 2014, while one will be let out immediately and one, Jason Hernandez of McKinney, Texas, had his sentenced reduced to 20 years on a 1998 conviction for making methamphetamine.
President Barack Obama’s Full Statement Released Thursday is below:
Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system. Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison. In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime.
Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.
Three days ago, Wintersmith, through the ACLU, made this appeal:
I Will Die Here, Unless President Obama Helps
I joined a drug ring when I was 17 years old and, for just over a year, sold crack and powder cocaine in Rockford, Ill. I was arrested when I was 19 years old.
I am now 39 years old. I have spent over half of my life in federal prison. I have been gone from a world that witnessed the advent of smartphones, digital cameras, and GPS technology. More personally, I have been gone from my family. I have missed 20 years of graduations, funerals, and carved turkeys for the holidays. For my very first conviction, I paid with the entire balance of my freedom.
And I am destined to die here, unless President Obama commutes my life without parole sentence. Presidential pardons are usually handed out the week of December 22nd. There are thousands who think it’s time I went home.
Two decades ago, I stood before a federal judge who reluctantly sentenced me to life in prison. Everyone in the courtroom – the prosecutor, the judge, my lawyer – said the sentence was too harsh. But the federal formula was unwavering: it required exponentially harsher penalties for crack offenses, compared to offenses exclusively involving powder cocaine. My life sentence is the product of an unjust legal formula that has since been abandoned.
I do not deny the devastating effects of drug addiction. I know those effects firsthand. Both of my parents were drugs addicts. When I was 11 years old, I found my mother dead from a heroin overdose. I was sent to live with my grandmother, who herself was a well-known Rockford cocaine dealer. I was raised in a crack and prostitution house where adult family members taught me how to cook, package and sell cocaine. My childhood does not excuse my crime. It only explains the road I have traveled.
My clemency petition raises one fundamental question: is permanent banishment from society the only answer for a teenager who, with no prior convictions, joins a drug ring and spends a little over a year peddling crack and powder cocaine? I believe the answer is no. Rehabilitation is possible. I have a 20-year record of achievement to prove it. Even in the face of a mandatory life sentence, I have spent the last 20 years working to grow from an immature boy to a productive man. I have completed a 4,100 hour teaching apprenticeship to become a U.S. Department of Labor certified Teacher’s Aide. I am a certified victim impact counselor. I am a companion for the inmate suicide prevention program. I teach in the Federal Bureau of Prisons reentry program, which prepares inmates for successful community reentry.
The person I have grown into is my way of apologizing to everyone I have ever wronged.
My clemency petition does not ask President Obama to rewrite constitutional law or legislate policy with the presidential pen. Congress and the Supreme Court have recently recognized that unjust mechanisms were a part of the federal sentencing machinery that resulted in my life sentence. Legislatively, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 is a bipartisan rejection of the unwarranted disparity between crack and powder sentences. Judicially, the Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, said that it is unconstitutional to sentence any juvenile – even a juvenile murderer – to a mandatory life sentence.
Regardless of whether I am a juvenile offender by legal definition, the basic principles of Miller certainly apply. I am serving a life sentence for a drug crime that began and ended when I was just a teenager. If the Constitution prohibits a life sentence for juvenile murderers, then why must I die in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense?
With each passing day, the constitutional and penological justifications further erode from the compulsory life sentences for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders like me. Both the federal judge who sentenced me and the prosecutor’s office support my commutation. My request to President Obama contained the signatures of thousands of ordinary Americans, over 50 law schools, and numerous public servants and mobilized organizations, all of whom support commutation.
This holiday season, please help me get home. You can take action here to help me and the thousands of other people destined to die behind bars for nonviolent drug and property crimes.