Judith Miller on Mandatory Minimums and Clemency for Client Eugene Haywood

The Case of Eugene Haywood: Why it's Time to Scrap Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

President Barack Obama just granted clemency to my client Eugene Haywood on Dec. 18. Haywood has served 14 years of a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime. It's the harshest possible prison term, one our federal criminal system otherwise reserves for people like terrorists and especially heinous murderers.

Many of the 95 clemency grants involved enormous drug sentences like Haywood's. Haywood and I are, of course, grateful to the president, but Haywood never should have been given a mandatory life sentence in the first place. The president and much of Congress say they want criminal justice reform. Now is the time to act.

When Haywood was 25, he was charged by federal prosecutors in Peoria with selling crack cocaine with two other people. He'd been dealing since he was 15 and had been convicted a couple of times, but he'd never served more than a couple of years in prison. He wasn't a gang member, and after trial his prosecutor conceded that he wasn't even a so-called "career offender," or the leader of his little three-person drug conspiracy.

But he still faced a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Haywood's sentence started at a minimum of 10 years in prison. The catch is that federal law gives the prosecutor the power to choose enhanced charges that can double the minimum sentence to 20 years in prison with one prior drug conviction, and require life in prison for a second, just for selling drugs. The prior convictions don't need to be very serious — even probation for possessing an illegal drug can count as long as there's a theoretical possibility of more than a year in prison. Judges are required by law to impose the minimum sentences that come with the enhanced charges chosen by prosecutors.

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