Fourteen of the luckiest people in the United States were gathered in one room Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
TV cameras, reporters, and congressional staffers crowded into a small briefing room in the Rayburn House Office Building, to see the rare sight: 14 former prisoners, all of them drug offenders, who had their sentences commuted by a president of the United States of America.
The Justice Department announced an initiative last month to commute the sentences of thousands of federal inmates, and civil liberties groups have latched on to the momentum to seek long sought-after criminal justice reforms.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) brought the former prisoners to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and Justice Department officials. The goal was to put a human face on clemency and what the organizations say is an unjust federal prison system.
Among the group of former prisoners was a man who’d been sentenced at the age of 20 to life without parole for selling crack cocaine, his first drug offense. Most of them were black, and none had received sentences shorter than 10 years.
A recent Pew Research Center analysis showed that, between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws. Yet federal sentencing guidelines and drug laws remain mostly unchanged since their implementation during the tough-on-crime days of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The federal prison population has increased 3.2 percent a year over the past 10 years, and the system is operating at nearly 140 percent of its capacity. Drug offenders make up half of the federal prison population. And while African-Americans represent less than 15 percent of the overall American population, they constitute 37 percent of the federal prison population.
It was not an exaggeration when one speaker described the scene on Tuesday as "a room full of lottery winners."
Presidents have used their pardon power less and less over the years. President Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences out of 5,448 requests, most of them at the end of his second term. President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences out of 8,576 requests. And so far, Obama has granted clemency to 10 people out of the more than 11,000 requests he has received.
But those are just numbers.
On Tuesday evening I met with Phil Emmert in the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel. Emmert, 57, is stocky, white, and bald with a neatly trimmed, greying goatee. He grew up in Arkansas and has the manners to match. He was unique among the group of former inmates in that he was the only one whose sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush.
In 1992, federal prosecutors charged Emmert with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. A group of his biker friends had been caught with 27 pounds of meth, and all testified that Emmert had bought from them.
Emmert said he was just buying for personal use, and none of the testimony implicated him in selling. Nevertheless, he was charged for the full 27 pounds. The government also seized his car under asset forfeiture laws.
"[The prosecutors] told me, ‘if you try and get your car, we'll go after your wife and say she was part of the conspiracy,’" Emmert said. "That's a common practice, and they'll do it, too."
The judge sentenced Emmert to 324 months, or 27 years, in federal prison. He was a first-time drug offender, but the judge’s hands were tied by federal sentencing guidelines. Emmert’s sentence was reduced by several years in the late 1996, but only after Congress modified sentencing guidelines.
I asked Emmert what sort of sentence he thinks would have been appropriate.
"I think for people who are first-time drug offenders, probation and intensive drug screenings. I would have stopped," Emmert said, pausing for a moment. "I like to hope I would’ve. There was one time I got arrested for DUI, and they threatened me with prison time, and I completely stopped. I'd done drugs since the early '70s. You know, I just grew up in a hippie area."
Emmert began serving out his sentence in a minimum-security federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn. One thing he noticed was that there were a lot of other prisoners like him, guys who got sandbagged by prosecutors and sentencing guidelines.
"When I first got locked up, if you had less than 10 years you'd better lie about it," Emmert said. "That's just the way it was. People wouldn't trust you if you had less than 10 years."
About a year into his sentence, his wife and 8-year-old daughter were in a car crash. His wife was paralyzed. Meanwhile, Emmert was stuck in "the hole," or solitary confinement, as punishment for being caught with alcohol. He described that day as "the very bottom of my existence."
Emmert got down on his knees and prayed: "God, you've either got to change me or kill me."
"My first year was a rough one," he said, "but I changed."
Emmert decided that when he got out he would get an HVAC job at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City, where his wife lived. The VA hospital was the best employer in town, and he had previous experience as an HVAC technician.
So Emmert took every course he could on HVAC systems. He also served as a hospice care volunteer for terminally ill inmates and even became a licensed minister.
Around 2002, a group from the rural church that had licensed him as a minister began sending him letters to cheer him up. One of his new pen pals told her daughter, Karen Orehowsky, about Emmert’s case.
Orehowsky, an EPA official in D.C., initially couldn’t believe Emmert had been sentenced to 27 years for a first-time drug offense, but once she reviewed his case, she began a campaign to lobby the Justice Department for his clemency.
Orehowsky and the church enlisted a top-tier law firm, and then she set about using her D.C. contacts to drum up support. Emmert’s story soon found its way to Bush’s chief of staff, Justice Department officials, and anyone else who would listen.
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, normally a law-and-order politician, sent a letter in support of Emmert.
The same judge who sentenced Emmert also sent a letter to the Department of Justice arguing for clemency. "The purpose of the sentence I imposed has fully been served," the judge wrote in 2004.
And then everyone waited. Petitions for clemency are filed with the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department. The deliberations of the 12-person office are not public, and prisoners often wait years to hear back.
It had been three years since Emmert sent his petition—four years since the effort began—when he was called into the administrator’s office and told to call his lawyer.
"How’s it going?" Emmert asked.
"It’s going pretty good," his lawyer said. "As a matter of fact it's the best day of my life."
"Good for you," Emmert remembers thinking. "Don't you know I'm in prison?"
But then the lawyer said, "It's the best day of my life because President Bush just commuted your sentence."
"I cried like a little baby," Emmert said, "I can't even describe it. It felt like the weight of the world was taken off my shoulders." All of the former prisoners described similar experiences—breaking down in tears, the dizzying feeling when they suddenly saw the future rolling out before them.
In 2007, after 14 years in prison, Emmert was free. He landed a job working one night a week at the VA hospital as a housekeeper. Emmert’s wife had been collecting disability since her accident, but as soon as Emmert was making enough money, she cancelled the payments.
"They thought she was crazy when she went in to get off of it," Emmert said. "They'd never had anyone do that. That was good day for us. That's all a prisoner dreams of, is to take care of their family."
After our interview, Emmert and I walked over to the dinner hosted that night by the ACLU and FAMM. Inside, representatives from conservative organizations like the Charles Koch Institute and the Heritage Foundation mingled with folks from StopTheDrugWar.org. A couple members of Congress worked their way through the room. It was sign of how far sentencing advocates have advanced.
"People would laugh us out of their offices when we first started talking about crack cocaine sentencing reform," the ACLU’s Laura Murphy remembered.
But in 2010, after years of lobbying by civil rights groups, Congress passed a bill reducing the huge sentencing disparity for crack cocaine offenses compared to powder cocaine.
The Obama administration’s new push for commutations has sentencing reform advocates hopeful that the momentum will continue their way.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has come together on Capitol Hill to push sentencing reform legislation. A bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act has been introduced in the Senate and House.
The bill has the support of many civil liberties groups. At Tuesday’s briefing, Murphy called it "the most significant piece of criminal justice reform that Congress can and should consider this session."
However, there is still stiff opposition in some quarters to sentencing reform.
In a letter sent earlier this month, 29 former high-ranking officials, including two U.S. attorneys general and three Drug Enforcement Agency administrators, wrote to Senate leaders, urging them to oppose the Smarter Sentencing Act.
"We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions of this magnitude on public safety," the letter reads. "We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines, and PCP."
However, a number of high-profile conservative lawmakers and organizations have thrown their weight behind the bill, such as Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah).
Last year, Americans for Tax Reform, Heritage Action for America, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and several evangelical Christian groups sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee arguing the ballooning federal prison population was a massive waste of taxpayer dollars.
The conservative American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) also reversed its longstanding support for mandatory minimums last year.
After dinner, several of the former prisoners got up to share their stories. Although the tone was jubilant, one recurring note was the friends they left behind.
"We left so many people behind, and we have guilt like you can’t imagine," De-Ann Coffman said.
But Coffman, along with the 13 others who won the federal prison lottery, have mostly looked ahead to the business of putting their lives back together. Coffman, whose 85-year sentence for drug conspiracy was commuted by Clinton, now owns an RV company in Texas that employs 38 people.
Peter Ninemire—24.5 years for growing marijuana, commuted after 11 years by Clinton—is a licensed addiction and mental health counselor in Kansas.
Serena Nunn, sentenced at age 19 to 16 years in prison for drug conspiracy, is an attorney who works with public defenders. The list goes on.
Emmert’s old lawyer Tim Means has taken on four other clemency cases and has won them all.
"People reached out and started helping me," Emmert told me outside the dinner hall. "There's no prisoner out there who thinks that people care about them like that. The perception is that everyone in D.C. is a bunch of egomaniacs, but there are some really good people in this town who care about them. Most people don't realize what one act of kindness will do. It will change someone's life. It will."
Emmert is now the supervisor of the maintenance department at the Veterans Affairs hospital. He lives in Iowa City with his wife.