A decade ago, Marcus Richards wrote to a judge from his cell in Cross City, near Florida’s Panhandle, pleading for “a second chance at life.” In neat block letters, Richards asked the judge for mercy, citing his involvement in his local church and community, despite a guilty plea on cocaine charges.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Mickle replied a few days later that he did not have the power to reduce Richards’ sentence of 20 years in prison, the mandatory minimum at the time, according to court filings. But this week, President Obama did grant Richards’ request: He is one of 46 non-violent drug offenders whose sentences were commuted on Monday. Ten of the offenders were from Florida.
“When I got the news, I was running around hollering and screaming, thanking God,” said Richards’ mother, Barbara Baker, who said her son called her from prison on Monday to relay the news that he would be released Nov. 10.
The announcement marked the largest number of commutations in one day by a U.S. president since the 1960s and is part of a larger effort by Obama to address criminal justice reforms as well as the country’s crowded prisons. On Tuesday, the president expanded on his goals in a speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia, calling for a review of solitary confinement policies and for felons who are released from prison to have the right to vote. On Thursday, he is expected to visit a federal prison in Oklahoma.
Richards, now 50, was arrested in early October 2004 in Miami after a cocaine dealer in Gainesville named him as a supplier to federal drug enforcement agents. Federal agents took him to Gainesville to await trial for one count of conspiring to distribute and intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 50 kilograms of cocaine base.
Richards, a father of four, pleaded guilty and assumed that he would be sentenced based on the guidelines for distributing about 15 kilograms of cocaine, according to a petition that he filed in 2007. That would have meant less jail time. But because of testimony that prosecutors were prepared to use in trial about the amount of cocaine he had sold and a former felony drug offense that he served time for in the 1990s, Richards faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years.
Harsh mandatory minimums were a hallmark of the war on drugs that was waged in the late 1980s and led to a burgeoning prison population which members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are now working to rein in. Nearly all of the 89 commutations that Obama has granted in his presidency are for non-violent drug offenses.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said he’s hopeful that many more applicants will be approved for clemency, but added that more needs to be done to address sentencing issues.
“Even at a stepped up pace, it’s potentially a drop in the bucket,” said Mauer. “The next step is really federal sentencing reform.”
Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges, voted to reduce the penalties for most drug crimes. And in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to address the disparity in sentences for powder cocaine and crack cocaine drug offenses that have disproportionately affected blacks. If approved, proposed bipartisan legislation in Congress would reduce federal mandatory minimums and retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act to prisoners sentenced before 2010.
Randolph Murrell, a federal public defender in Tallahassee who worked on Richards’ case briefly, said he welcomes the shift in policy.
“The sentencing commission and Congress have finally concluded that these sentences weren’t warranted,” he said.
“There seems to be more of a consensus now than there ever has been” that the punishments have been too harsh, Murrell added.
Among the nine other Florida men who had their sentences commuted were Nathaniel Brown from Orange Park who was serving a life sentence for conspiring to sell and distribute cocaine, and Mark Anthony Jones from Boynton Beach who was serving a life sentence for distributing cocaine base.
While in prison, Richards disputed his sentence on several occasions after that first letter to the judge. He filed for an appeal as well as a separate motion to have his sentence reduced, both denied. He also filed an application for clemency with the help of a lawyer.
Baker said the news of her son’s release could not have come at a better time. Her husband — Richards’ father, Gary — passed away in April. His illness had prevented the pair from making the trip to see Richards since he was moved to a prison in Kentucky several years ago. Richards’ dad had told his son to keep his focus and vowed that he would come home this year.
“We all just kept praying,” Baker said.
Richards’ sister, Sebrina, heard about her brother’s impending release on the news Monday. “I’m just so happy that he’s coming home,” she said. “He’ll be back to celebrate Thanksgiving.”
On Monday, a guard sent Richards to his counselor’s office regarding a calendar that he kept up near his bed to mark off the days of his sentence. But it was then that his counselor gave him the news.
“Richards, you’re going home November 10,” she told him, smiling. “Your application came through.”
As the jolt of news hit him, he began to cry and tried to hug his counselor, Baker said.
Baker tearfully described the call from her son. “I was chosen, I’m one of the 46,” she said he told her. “Momma, Daddy told me I was coming home and now I’m coming home.”