POLITICS

Here's How It Feels To Lose Obama's Get-Out-Of-Prison Lottery

"My folks are devastated," said one inmate. "I ain't even gonna call and tell them."

 

WASHINGTON -- A few dozen federal inmates, all of them nonviolent drug offenders, surely celebrated this week when President Barack Obama announced he was granting them their freedom. But for those who applied for clemency but didn't make the latest list, the occasion was bittersweet.

"I'm happy that so many people are being given a second chance," said Scott Walker, who is serving a life sentence without parole for selling drugs, which he did in order to pay for his own addiction. "I am disappointed though, because I feel like I'm in a huge lottery and I've lost my confidence that we're being given relief based upon merit alone."

He told The Huffington Post that he's been sober for nearly two decades and has spent his time in prison accumulating over 2,000 hours in plumber's training, completing a course for a commercial driver's license and reading more than 1,000 books. According to a U.S. Justice Department spokesperson, Walker's application to have his sentence commuted is still pending.

The president granted clemency to 46 federal inmates this week, but more than 30,000 have applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a group of lawyers preparing petitions and submitting them to the government. The government's review of petitions is an ongoing process, so many are still being considered. Inmates are notified upon disposition of their application whether they are approved or denied. The Justice Department has not yet said how many applications were denied in this round, although the publicly released numbers are updated regularly.

The overwhelming majority of those who received clemency in the latest batch were sentenced for crimes involving crack and cocaine. Congress passed a law in 2010 narrowing the sentence disparity between the two, and the Obama administration has sought to counteract the effects of such outdated sentencing rules. But despite a renewed push by the White House, the review process for granting commutations remains slow.

Alice Marie Johnson is a mother of five who is serving life without parole despite being a first-time, nonviolent offender. She said she was a little disappointed that there were not more women on this week's clemency list because "it's time for more mothers to return home."

Johnson's application is also pending, according to the Justice Department. She said that she has faith she will eventually be picked. "This is the most hope that I have seen in the faces of the women since coming to prison," she said. "I must applaud President Obama for the efforts he's making in addressing prison reform."

Obama is pushing for bipartisan criminal justice reforms, including changing harsh sentencing laws and fixing the troubled juvenile justice system. On Thursday, he will become the first president to visit a federal prison, according to his administration.

Dicky Joe Jackson, who was caught selling meth in order to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his young son, didn't make the cut as well. His application is still on the table. "My folks are devastated. I ain't even gonna call and tell them. Maybe next time," he said. 

Jackson said he was proud of the president, but wished that the commutations came more frequently. "By the time he leaves office, there will still be thousands of us in here who, like our families, have gotten our hopes up for nothing." He added, "With a life sentence, this is our only hope."

This article has been updated to note that 30,000 inmates have applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014 and to clarify the project's role.

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