Today President Obama is visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of his new push for criminal justice reform. In my latest Forbes column, I argue that while Obama cannot solve overincarceration on his own, he could do a lot more than he has done so far:
In 2006 Telisha Watkins helped connect a neighbor in New York City with a cocaine dealer in North Carolina. The neighbor, who turned out to be a confidential informant, had said he was interested in buying 18 ounces of cocaine. Watkins was ultimately charged with participating in a conspiracy involving 285 grams of crack as well as 428 grams of cocaine powder, based on the package her acquaintance in North Carolina delivered and the contents of his van. Because of the crack and three prior convictions for drug possession, Watkins received a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in 2007, when she was 33.
Thanks to President Obama, Watkins will go free in November, more than nine years before her expected release date. She is one of 46 federal prisoners whose sentences, ranging from 14 years to life, were commuted on Monday. All of them are nonviolent drug offenders, three-quarters of whom were convicted of crack offenses at a time when penalties were substantially more severe than they are now. There are thousands more like them in federal prisons, and Obama has the power to free them all. Whether he will use that power remains to be seen, and time is running out.