On March 6, 2016, an ex-con from Florida, Sherman D. Chester, wrote a "thank you" letter to President Obama. Chester was one of the 61 non-violent drug offenders who received commutations of their sentences from President Obama on December 18, 2015. More than a third of those who received commutations were serving life sentences. Chester then wrote about his own life story.
Chester was serving a life sentence without parole at Jesup Federal Correctional Institution for crimes he committed in Florida. Jesup is the same prison facility where Timothy Tyler is doing his time. For those unaware, Timothy was sentenced to life without parole after being caught selling acid for a third time, even though the he never served any prior time or showed any violent conduct. Both Tyler and Chester share similar stories – young kids in Florida being introduced to the wrong crowd, making poor decisions, and being caught up in something much bigger than they expected.
When Chester was being sentenced, the presiding Judge had a lot of personal issues with the way in which the law forced his hand. He stated, "This case is an illustration of the difficulties and problems that result from the application of mandatory minimum sentences. This man doesn't deserve a life sentence, and there is no way that I can legally keep from giving it to him."
Chester's letter to President Obama came after he served more than 20 years in prison. It also cost US taxpayers over $1,300,000.00 (yes, over one and a quarter million dollars) to keep him incarcerated. Even after that, the letter notifying him of his commutation made clear that "the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws." In receiving such praise, Chester made clear in his letter to President Obama that he has hard pressed to express just how much it means to him that the President believed in him "enough to give me that second chance."
It is that last line that makes the news from yesterday that much more meaningful. President Obama issued commutations for 214 men and women.
President Obama recognizes the fact that this story isn't unique to kids in Florida. Rather, President Obama stated "that Sherman's story is all too common in this country – a country that imprisons its citizens at a far higher rate than any other. Too many men and women end up in a criminal justice system that serves up excessive punishments, especially for nonviolent drug offenses."
The "War on Drugs" has destroyed communities and families without any regard to race, color, or religious belief. Hope has been hard to find, but this act by President Obama lights that spark for many who thought it may be too late. Since starting his first term nearly 8 years ago, President Obama has "commuted more sentences than the past nine presidents combined". And in his own words, he is "not done yet."