By Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd, Esq.
As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother, I know from personal experience that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison.
Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities across America. There is a real problem here and a need to help those affected.
The United States makes up nearly 5 percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Today, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated and more than 70 million have criminal records in this country. This state of mass incarceration comes with a price tag of nearly $80 billion annually.
While the numbers are astonishing, to truly understand the issue, we must look beyond the numbers and see heartbeats.
17061112. This number was assigned to my client Corey Jacobs 16 years ago when he began serving time in federal prison for nonviolent drug convictions. Corey had no prior felony convictions. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website, Corey’s release date is not a series of numbers. It is letters … four of them. Life. With no parole in the federal system, Corey has been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.
Corey’s case was recently highlighted by former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder in an opinion piece featured in the New York Times about the need for criminal justice reform. More than two decades ago, Corey, now 46, made a bad decision to become a drug dealer with a small group of college friends in Virginia.
He was convicted based primarily on the testimony of co-conspirators who testified in exchange for reduced sentences. Due to federal laws, Corey was held accountable for all “reasonably foreseeable” quantities of drugs attributed to the several people involved in the conspiracy. Corey was by no stretch of the imagination a drug kingpin and absolutely no dimension of his conduct was violent.
Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison, Corey has worked diligently to prove that he is deserving of a second chance at life. He has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming, completed three self-improvement residential programs, and received more than 100 learning certificates that have enhanced his education and personal development. Extraordinarily, Corey earned more than half of these certificates in the past five years.
Corey is the only defendant left on his case still behind bars after a co-defendant, who was also serving life without parole, received an unquestionably deserving grant of clemency from President Obama not long ago.
Notably, Judge Henry Coke Morgan, Jr., who sentenced Corey to life in prison under mandatory sentencing laws, believes that Corey deserves clemency like his co-defendant. In a letter supporting Jacobs’ pending clemency petition, Morgan confirmed that he is “certain” that he “would not have imposed a life sentence on (Corey) had the laws at the time not virtually mandated it.”
There is no doubt that a prison sentence was warranted in this case. But he doesn’t deserve to come out of prison in a body bag.
Life in prison without the possibility of parole is, short of execution, the harshest punishment available in America. It screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption. It suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. And, in Corey’s case, it is grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct it seeks to punish.
Recently, I went to visit Corey in prison to discuss his pending clemency petition. I sat in the bleak, cold concrete interior of the attorney-client visiting room unsure of what to expect. I was quite impressed with his remorse, acceptance of responsibility, intelligence and dedication to bettering himself. His optimism epitomizes the resiliency of the human spirit.
I learned he is an avid meditator. He mentioned in passing how he once read nature could enhance the meditation experience but he had not seen a tree in years. The prison yard outside is surrounded by daunting, grey brick buildings. The rest of the conversation was a blur because I could not move past the fact that he had not seen a tree … a tree.
I left the prison in awe of Corey’s positive energy despite his situation. But what alternative is there to hope, when your reality is unbearable? If you lose hope, you have lost it all.
Unfortunately, Corey is not alone. The United States locks up too many people for far too long. Thousands of men and women continue to labor in prison under the dark cloud of a sentence that would be substantially lower if handed down under current laws. No question, drugs harm society. But allowing nonviolent drug offenders to die in prison is not only morally wrong and inhumane – it is absolutely offensive to the values of this country.
Our criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. It is tangled in overcrowded prison cells, draconian sentences, shameful sentencing disparities, burdensome incarceration costs, and heartbroken children and families.
For many nonviolent drug offenders their only hope for freedom is for Congress to change the laws or clemency from President Obama.
A rainbow of mercy crossed Capitol Hill last year yielding unprecedented bipartisan agreement in Congress that our criminal justice system is in need of serious reform. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is a crucial bill pending in the Senate that would pull back mass incarceration and save tax payers billions of dollars. We must urge Congress to pass this overdue, life changing legislation.
President Obama has is committed to reinvigorating the clemency process through his administration’s groundbreaking initiative to prioritize clemency applications for individuals like Corey.
Just this month, President Obama granted clemency to 214 people. The White House reports that this act of mercy brings the President’s clemency total to more than the last nine presidents combined. I am in hopes that the President will continue to show dedication to this critical initiative and regularly grant clemency to large groups of deserving people through the end of his term.
For years while working as a corporate attorney, I devoted hours to pro bono representation for clients in prison under outdated sentencing regimes and have handled several successful clemency petitions. This time last year, my client Sharanda Jones was serving her 17th year of a life without parole sentence as a first-time nonviolent drug offender. Clemency from President Obama on Dec. 18, 2015 literally saved her life.
There is no rational argument for why nonviolent drug offenders should die in prison. It is an utter waste of human life and a true indictment of our ailing criminal justice system. The time is now for the people who hold the levers of power to believe in humanity and simply do the right thing.
I never imagined that visiting a United States penitentiary would change the trajectory of my life and legal career. The state of consciousness I felt after meeting with Corey empowered me. I no longer wanted to be just a lawyer. I wanted to use this platform to promote the greater good. Because of thousands of cases like Corey’s, two months ago I unhesitatingly resigned from my corporate law job to be an advocate for criminal justice reform.
There is nothing more urgent than freedom.
Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd is the ClemencyNOW campaign manager at Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to cut America’s prison population in half. She is also founder of Girls Embracing Mothers, a Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls with mothers in prison.