Call for Clemency
By Karen Gross
“Ms. Gross. This is the Pardon Office with the Department of Justice. Please call me as soon as possible on a very urgent matter.”
My heartbeat quickened. Finally! I knew, of course, exactly why the Office of Pardon Attorney was calling me. They were calling to tell me the President of the United States had granted my client clemency.
It was the last day of the Obama administration, January 19, 2016. I had been hoping for this call. Frantically dialing the return number, my hands shook a little.
“The President has granted your client clemency.”
I could hear the joy in the attorney's voice as she shared the good news with me. After all the work reviewing cases, this was the moment they savor. The chance to tell the attorney the good news.
A second chance at life.
I took down the notes on a napkin (which I still have) in preparation for my scheduled call with my client at 1:30pm later that day. The Pardon Attorney implored me not to speak with the press as a release would be going out after attorneys had the chance to tell their clients.
Time ticked by.
Now was the moment I had been waiting for… the moment to tell my client the news.
“John” had been sentenced in 2006, at the age of 49, to 420 months in federal prison. A 420-month sentence (35 years) for someone that age is essentially a life sentence.
John grew up in a small town in Oklahoma and from a young age began using drugs. He struggled with addiction and sold to use. John had no incidents of violence on his criminal record and no instances over the course of the 10+ years he's been locked up. John has a disease. His disease is drug addiction.
John has done the work while incarcerated to restore. Earning countless certificates, his GED, and using the time to find his faith. A condition of John's early release is his participation in a 500-hour residential drug treatment program.
John's children have grown up without their father in their lives. His wife is battling cancer. He wants to be there for his kids- who are now adults themselves. And for his wife.
My conversation with John was brief. He did not cry or jump for joy. He was gracious and appreciative, yet tempered. I suspect that, for some, years in prison makes it difficult to feel joy and hope even when you receive good news. Yes, John has hope for a life outside the prison walls, now. But he has lost so much. And nothing can restore that.
We are a country that believes in second chances. We believe that people have the capacity to change and grow and be better. We also are a county that systematically locked up our people for nonviolent crimes and sentenced them to decades in prison. Much of this was a result of systemic racism. It is not right. That is not justice. The movement for criminal justice reform needs your attention, your care, and your voice.
NPR stories by Carrie Johnson
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