Earlier this month, Donald Trump reacted to President Obama’s clemency initiative by saying “Some of these people are bad dudes … and these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.” Trump’s words were consistent with his fearmongering tough-on-crime rhetoric, but not with the reality I have seen.
I’m a former federal prosecutor who spent five years going after drug dealers and other criminals in Detroit. I worked to put a lot of people in prison, including counterfeiters, bank robbers, human traffickers and those who financially supported terrorists.
I’m proud of the work I did there, and I have no problem with most of the lengthy prison terms I sought. There is an exception, though: Too many low-level drug traffickers, nearly all of them black, got sentences that were far too long and solved no problem.
As a professor at the University of St. Thomas, I have tried to fix that. The school has allowed me to start a clinic, the first in the nation, where I work with students to seek clemency for nonviolent narcotics prisoners in the federal system.
One of them was Ronald Blount, who first wrote to me with documents jammed into a big, brown envelope. One of those documents was the transcript of his sentencing, where Blount explained that he was addicted to crack and lived by begging for change in a park. He was reduced to sleeping on his mother’s porch; because of his addiction, she would not let him inside. The probation officer’s report confirmed that, and the fact that Blount’s role in the offense was limited to helping others sell crack in the hope of getting some for himself.
These tasks included doing errands for his brother, telling people where they could buy crack and being “present once when they ‘cooked up dope.’ ” For this and enhancements based on two prior low-level trafficking convictions, Blount received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He has served 18 years.
That letter arrived three years ago. Working with my students Allison Kadrmas and Nicole Swisher, we filed a clemency petition with Obama, hoping to cut short that life sentence. Since then, Ronald Blount has called me every Friday like clockwork. Sometimes I am at my desk, in the car or on vacation, but he always calls. I have gotten to know him well, and I understand not only the crime he committed but the person he has become since that time.
Remarkably, given the hopelessness of his sentence, Blount has diligently pursued work and education in prison and kept out of trouble. He spends his time working in the chapel and the visiting area of the federal prison in Beaumont, Texas. He saves the little he makes to buy presents for his granddaughter and to call me each Friday.
I suppose that Trump might label Blount a “bad dude.” He would be wrong. As a businessperson, though, I would hope that Trump would understand the problem with imprisoning people like Blount. At a cost of more than $30,000 a year, it could end up costing the taxpayers over $1 million to imprison Blount for his full life term. Yet, we don’t get much for our money — giving a life sentence to a low-level offender — a crack addict — does nothing to solve any discernible problem, because they are so easily replaced within a drug operation. And businesspeople like Trump hate losing money.
If the humanity of people like Blount doesn’t matter to Trump (or to Hillary Clinton, who has said nothing about clemency during the campaign), perhaps the troubling finances of the drug war will.
On Tuesday, the president granted Blount’s petition for clemency, one of three grants our clinic received that day. I called the prison to give him the news, patiently waiting for him to be located within the sprawling facility. His voice was tense when he answered, but not for long. I told him that he would be home around Christmastime, and he said “God is good.”
I agreed; how could I not?
There was a silence, born of shock and wonder, and then he signed off: “Talk to you Friday.”
Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas.