Erin was seven months pregnant when they locked her away.
Her daughter turns 5 next month, and there’s a third-year law student from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis working to get Erin out of federal prison before she misses another birthday.
“If I can give Erin an ounce of hope about her future, it’s worth it,” said Kaitlyn Hennessy, who works at the law school’s Federal Commutations Clinic, a class that seeks to temper the federal justice system with a little mercy.
Thousands of Americans are serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses — sentences that didn’t change even after the sentencing guidelines did. There are survivors of sex trafficking like Erin — who was kidnapped from a slumber party by her mother’s drug dealer when she was 14 and was working as a prostitute by the time she was 15 — who grew up and were imprisoned on sex trafficking charges.
This isn’t the Innocence Project. The clinic’s clients broke the law, and they admit it. Erin took in a teenage runaway. She also took the money the girl earned as a prostitute and helped drive her around to encounters with men. Erin saw it as helping a kid who was engaged in the same work she’d been doing at that age. Federal prosecutors saw it as sex trafficking a child.
But clients don’t make it into the St. Thomas program unless their case is more gray than black and white.
When the punishment seems harsher than the crime, the clinic offers a legal long shot: asking the president of the United States for a second chance.
The U.S. Constitution grants the president the right to pardon federal felons or commute their sentences. George Washington pardoned two armed insurgents facing execution for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion. In June, President Donald Trump commuted the life sentence a great-grandmother named Alice Johnson had been serving since 1996.
“While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance,” the White House announced.
Mark Osler, the Robert and Marion Short chair at St. Thomas’ School of Law, is a former federal prosecutor who now advocates for federal sentencing and clemency reform. He lobbied for clemency for Johnson — with an assist from Kim Kardashian — and for thousands of other nonviolent offenders locked in federal penitentiaries.
Osler can fit everything wrong with the current federal pardon system in the space of one coffeehouse napkin.
In the lower right-hand corner, he doodles a little stick figure. That’s Erin, or Ms. Alice, or any of the thousands of other incarcerated people applying for federal clemency each year.
Then he starts drawing arrows up and around the napkin, tracing the tortured path of each petition. First to the staff of the federal pardon attorney, then the pardon attorney, then to the staff of the deputy attorney general, then to the deputy attorney general, then to the White House chief of staff’s staff, then the White House chief of staff, and finally on to the president’s desk.
There was a well-intentioned effort to streamline the system during the Obama administration, but while the Clemency Initiative commuted the sentences of about 1,700 nonviolent offenders who had already served at least a decade in prison, it also added about six additional steps to the process.
By the time the stick figure gets to the top of the napkin, 25 years could have passed.
For Rudy Martinez, another of Osler’s clients, a life sentence for drug trafficking lasted 26 years, until President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in 2016. Martinez has spent the days since taking college classes, volunteering with at-risk youth and reconnecting with his two sons, who grew up while he was in prison.
“I’ll be the first to admit I messed up,” Martinez said. “I knew the difference between right and wrong. … I blame myself. It was a costly decision.”
He was caught selling drugs in his neighborhood in 1992 and sentenced under old guidelines that punished possession or distribution of crack cocaine with sentences a hundred times harsher than comparable amounts of powder cocaine. Rather than stew about the injustice, he signed up for every class he could behind bars. Now, he’s working toward a degree in social work.
“It’s never too late to turn your life around,” he said.
The federal system Martinez left behind is so dysfunctional, it had become one of the few topics in Washington where the interests of everyone from bleeding-heart liberals to hard-nosed libertarians overlap. Fiscal conservative Grover Norquist is pushing for sentencing reforms, and so is presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who knows firsthand what it’s like to visit a parent in prison.
Erin stays hopeful, and so does her advocate. If her paperwork doesn’t catch the president’s eye, her sentence will be up in 2020, and she has a plan. She’ll find a fast-food job, maybe two, she told Hennessy. She’ll save up her money until she has enough to go to cosmetology school. Maybe someday she’ll have her own shop. Maybe someday she and her family will live a quiet life.
“We’ve seen it work,” Hennessy said. Past clients have left prison and gone to school, found work. One guy just realized a lifelong dream and started his own food truck.
“Providing hope into people’s lives gives them something to live for,” Hennessy said. “It gives me something to live for.”