#FreeHer Campaign Wants Clemency For 100 Women In Biden's First 100 Days
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There are more than 200,000 women and girls incarcerated in this country, and more than 10,000 of them are serving time in federal prison. Some want out now and are asking President Biden during the first days of his presidency to commute their sentences, which they say are unjust. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For more than two decades, Danielle Metz was among the thousands of women living in a federal prison until then-President Barack Obama approved her petition for clemency in August of 2016.
DANIELLE METZ: After 23 years and eight months of serving - you know, I was sentenced to three life sentences plus 20 years. The process was really hard because my family really didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted all my appeals. Clemency was my only hope.
CORLEY: And the president is the only one who can do that, according to the U.S. Constitution - either commuting or reducing a sentence for a federal crime or granting a pardon down the line. Metz says she expected punishment, not just a life sentence. She was married to an alleged drug kingpin and sentenced in 1993 on a drug conspiracy and money laundering conviction. Although considered a nonviolent offender, under the conspiracy guidelines, she was held liable for all the acts of violent co-defenders she had never met as well.
METZ: When I came in the system, they didn't have any parole or anything like that anymore. So I was just doing time day for day.
CORLEY: Now Metz works with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The group's founder, Andrea James, says draconian penalties, mandatory minimum sentences and drug conspiracy charges are part of the reason why the incarceration rate for women has spiraled over several years. She says too often it's meant excessive consequences that far outweigh the crimes.
ANDREA JAMES: When I was in federal prison, there were women that were there for conspiracy who never touched a drug; they didn't see a drug. If you took conspiracy out of it - the equation, you could not justify these women sitting in prison for 10, 15, 20, 25 and life with no parole sentences. And it's just absolutely heartbreaking.
CORLEY: As a U.S. senator, President Biden wrote or supported many of the tough-on-crime bills that critics say have had a disparate impact on Black neighborhoods and increased the prison population. He's since offered reforms, but James says Biden should continue righting wrongs by granting clemency during his first 100 days for 100 women that the National Council believes should be released. That includes women serving life without parole for drug cases.
JAMES: The second category are women who are sick. They have chronic or terminal illness, and they are in prison during COVID-19.
RACHEL BARKOW: While there's certainly a need to grant thousands of clemency petitions, the problem is that the process is broken.
CORLEY: That's Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and an expert on clemency. She says there's a 14,000-person backlog of federal prison clemency requests. And she blames, in part, the drawn-out review process that begins with the Department of Justice. Barkow says it's time for an independent body to take over vetting clemency petitions and advising the president.
BARKOW: It just does not make sense to ask prosecutors to make these decisions. There's a bias there where the prosecutor who looks at it is really focused on the initial crime and what the person did. But you know, clemency is so much more about who that person is today.
CORLEY: Incarcerated women, their families and supporters say they agree, but the more immediate concern is getting the president to commute the sentences of 100 women over the next few months instead of following a presidential tradition of granting clemency for many near the end of a term.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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