A new federal clemency initiative designed to reduce sentences for inmates convicted of nonviolent, often drug-related, offenses has drawn 22 requests from convicted Vermont offenders, including several sentenced on violent offenses.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced new criteria for inmates seeking commuted sentences. While none of the criteria explicitly deal with drug offenses, Justice officials have said the goal of the initiative is to reduce the nation’s growing prison population by granting clemency to nonviolent offenders, especially drug offenders sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in the 1980s, when prison terms for possessing crack cocaine were disproportionately greater than for other drug offenses.
“At one point in time, possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine — which is a very small handful — carried a minimum five-year jail sentence, and if there was a prior conviction for the same offense, the minimum increased to 10 years,” Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin said Friday. “Selling crack cocaine is obviously not good, but 10 years for a low-level person selling it is a long time to serve.”
The Associated Press has reported that 3,300 federal inmates have applied since the new clemency provisions went into effect in late April.
But in Vermont, no formal requests appeared until Tuesday when the federal public defender asked Vermont’s chief federal judge, Christina Reiss, for permission to prepare clemency applications for 22 Vermont offenders.
Vermont Federal Public Defender Michael Desautels said Friday his office is only seeking permission to prepare the clemency applications that would be sent to the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice.
That office reported Friday that no pro se or private attorney requests for clemency had been received from Vermont.
Neither Coffin nor Desautels foresees a large number of commuted sentences for federal offenders sentenced in Vermont.
“I think the activity in Vermont for a long time has not been nearly as rigid in policy sentencing as in other districts,” Coffin said.
Desautels voiced similar sentiments. “There will be some granted, but not a slew of them,” he said. “If you did a nationwide look at drug sentences you would see differences across the country. That’s not to say that Vermont judges are lenient, but they may consider factors that judges elsewhere haven’t taken into account. Also, we have a smaller caseload.”
Of the 22 incarcerated offenders who have asked for help preparing clemency applications, several seem to have circumstances that deviate from the clemency guidelines.
Richard E. Moses Jr., 46, was sentenced in 2010 to 25 years behind bars on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, possession of a gun during drug sales and an attempt in 2006 to silence a witness through murder for hire, according to court records.
Another man seeking clemency, Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, 25, was sentenced in December to seven years in jail for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and for possessing a firearm in the commission of a drug crime. Makhanda-Lopez was the key witness in the trial of Frank Caraballo, whom a federal jury found guilty last year of using a gun to kill Melissa Barratt, of Brattleboro, in 2011. However, the same jurors did not find Caraballo guilty of actually pulling the trigger.
During the trial, Caraballo’s defense team argued that it was Makhanda-Lopez, not their client, who killed Barratt in a dispute about drugs she had reportedly stolen from the Holyoke, Massachusetts, drug dealers.
The new clemency provisions specify that not only must offenders have been convicted of nonviolent, low-level offenses, but they must also have no history of violence, shown good conduct in prison, have less than a “significant” criminal history and have served at least 10 years of their ongoing prison terms.
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