The crime that sent Ricky Minor to federal prison for life involved a little more than a gram of methamphetamine, plus supplies for making more: pseudoephedrine pills, acetone, matches, and lighter fluid. There was no evidence that he made meth for anyone but himself and his wife, and under Florida law he probably would have received a sentence of two or three years. But a series of nonviolent drug offenses, none of which resulted in prison time, made him a "career offender" under federal law, triggering a mandatory life sentence for attempting to manufacture methamphetamine. "I was sitting in the courtroom when it happened," Minor's mother recalled in an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "and it was all I could do to stay seated in my chair. I was so shocked. I just couldn't believe they could do that to him." The judge who sentenced Minor acknowledged that a life term "far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate" while noting that he had no choice but to impose it.
Minor, who has spent 15 years behind bars, expected to die there. But thanks to President Obama, he will go free early in the next decade. Yesterday Obama commuted Minor's sentence from life to 262 months. Assuming Minor gets full "good time" credit, he should be released in less than five years. "Thanks to President Obama," Minor said in an ACLU press release, "I now have the chance to make my family proud of me, earn pride in myself, and be a person in society who is helpful and useful. I have felt my life wasting away inside of this place, and I know I'm capable of more. I haven't been able to hug my daughter as a free man since she was 7 years old. She's an adult now, and I am overcome with happiness that I won't miss any more of her life."
Minor is one 102 federal prisoners whose sentences Obama shortened yesterday, including 35 serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The latest batch raises Obama's commutation total to 774, "more than the previous 11 presidents combined," as the White House notes. That accomplishment is especially remarkable given Obama's slow start. He shortened just one sentence in his first term and just 20 more in the first two years of his second term. Of the commutations granted so far, 97 percent were issued in the second half of Obama's second term, with 76 percent granted since the beginning of this year. "While he will continue to review cases on an individualized basis throughout the remainder of his term," says White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, "these statistics make clear that the president and his administration have succeeded in efforts to reinvigorate the clemency process."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which helped publicize Ricky Minor's case, praised Obama for picking up his commutation pace while noting that the possibility of clemency does not absolve Congress of its responsibility to reform federal sentences, a bipartisan effort that fizzled this year thanks to Republican worries about looking soft on crime close to elections. "The president is doing the right thing," FAMM Vice President Kevin Ring said yesterday. "A hundred families—fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, and children—tonight will celebrate the news that a loved one will soon rejoin their family. President Obama has the power fix past mistakes, but only Congress can prevent future ones. It's time for Congress to reform the mandatory sentencing laws that produced—and continue to produce—unjust and counterproductive sentences."