Local lawyers help roll back what they see as injustice of drug war

  • Freed prisoner Robert L. Matthews, now in his mid-30s, who had been serving a 23-year federal prison sentence in Memphis, Tenn., for selling 26.2 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover agent at age 19. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • submitted photos submitted photos


  • Attorney Buz Eisenberg speaks to a crowd at the Charlemont Federated Church in July 2014 “Democracy at Risk” forum. Recorder file photo

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

When Northampton attorney William Newman first got word, in 2014, that lawyers were needed to volunteer on clemency cases of some of the 30,000 federal prisoners being held under harsh minimum drug sentences, he banged out an e-mail to his colleague, Ashfield attorney Stewart ‘Buz’ Eisenberg:

“Hi Buz. We haven’t freed anyone in a while. What do you think about this?”

The ‘this’ was President Obama’s initiative to have volunteers work with his Department of Justice to comb through approximately 99,000 federal inmates sentenced for drug charges and review 30,000 cases that might be eligible for clemency under a set of guidelines developed by a Clemency Project 2014 task force.

The reduction of federal mandatory sentences surpassed 1,000 with the announcement of an additional commutations this week. The 1,023 sentence reductions includes 342 prisoners who were serving life terms. In October 2015, Eisenberg, along with two of his students from Greenfield Community College, where he teaches criminal justice, traveled to Mississippi to review court documents and meet with the family of Robert L. Matthews, a black man in his mid-30s who had been serving a 23-year federal prison sentence in Memphis, Tenn., for selling 26.2 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover agent at age 19.

After spending seven hours compiling sentencing transcripts, the investigative report, and prison record, Eisenberg and GCC students Carys Lamberg, and Willow Wildman-Lyon visited Matthews’ mother, who with disabling health issues was being cared for by Matthews’ younger sister. It was an effort to gauge the family support network and a re-entry program in his home community.

“All she could do was cry when I talked with her,” said Eisenberg, describing the meeting with Matthews’ mother and 23 other members of the devout Baptist family. “It was so painful ... We joined hands in a circle before we started, with Cousin Barbara testifying, ‘Lord Jesus, thank you for sending Buz to us.’”

They returned the following day to work on Matthews’ case. They also met with the inmate in the Memphis prison that had been his home for more than two decades.

Each of the six cases the two attorneys have worked on together requires about two months of pro-bono work, said Eisenberg.

In the end, Matthews had his sentence commuted on Aug. 3 and is scheduled for release from a halfway house to his family on Dec. 1

“It’s staggering, it hurts when you talk to these guys, their families, their kids,” said Eisenberg. “‘He’s my baby, and I ain’t seen him in 15 years!’ … The level of remorse that you hear from each of these guys, when they do that much time, they have an awful lot of time to think about the choices they made in their lives. These are nonviolent people, selling drugs for small amounts of money.... Every one, you hear the level of sincerity, what they’ve learned, what they (feel they) did to their family. They always want to come out and be better than they were. Matthews, his first sale was for $8.50, the ‘big’ sale was almost $200 on the streets of Mississippi. Because of that small amount of money, he loses (nearly) a quarter-century.”

Discriminatory justice

Together, Newman and Eisenberg have won three commutations for their clients, with three more pending in the remaining days of the Obama administration. Of the six, four are black, one is Native American and one is Hispanic, the lawyers said – reflecting what Newman called “extraordinarily vindictive discrimination against people of color, 99-to-1” compared to the same quantities of powder cocaine preferred by suburban whites and reflected in mandatory minimum sentences imposed in the 1980s and ’90s.

Inmates whose cases are being reviewed had to have already served more than 10 years of their sentences, those original mandatory minimum sentences had to have been substantially longer than sentences that would be ordered today, the inmate had to be a non-violent, low-level offender with no ties to gangs, organized crime or cartels, with no history of violence before or during incarceration and no significant criminal history, and have demonstrated good conduct while in prison.

Eisenberg, who has worked pro-bono to have eight Guantanamo terrorism suspects transferred since 2004, including one with Newman’s help, agreed to the Northampton attorney’s call to work on the clemency cases as part of “a massive volunteer effort” sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts Chapter.

The ACLU, along with the American Bar Association and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, are among five organizations that coordinated volunteers working on the project.

Another of their clients, who asked not to be identified, was serving a 23-year federal sentence in Sandstone, Minn., on charges of selling crack cocaine in Chicago in 2003. Newman traveled with GCC student Julia Moore to the federal prison to record details on the case. (All three of the GCC students who worked on the project have received GCC’s 2016 Martin Luther King awards for their work.)

Their client had his sentence commuted on June 3, and is in a halfway house.

Endless incarceration

“One thing that makes it possible to live through this kind of experience of seemingly endless incarceration is family support from outside,” said Newman, adding that his client had few visitors over 14 years because of the prison’s distance from his Chicago home. But his fiance, who had been waiting 14 years for his release, was so excited that she traveled to Minnesota for the bus ride to the halfway house to which he was transferred.

The third commutation granted to one of their clients was for an inmate who’d been serving a 25-year drug sentence at the federal prison in Devens. He is being transferred to a residential drug treatment program in another federal institution.

Three more of their cases are being reviewed by the Department of Justice’s Office of Pardon Attorney. Two of the inmates are still at Sandstone on 30-year drug charges, with about half of that time served and a third has served 10 years of a 24-year sentence in federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky.

Obama act unprecedented

Obama has granted commutations to more prisoners than the past 11 presidents combined, said a White House statement this week in a commitment to continue “using all the tools at his disposal to remedy the unfairness at the heart of the system.”

According to the Associated Press, no modern president other than Lyndon B. Johnson issuing more than 100 commutations.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said Eisenberg of Obama’s clemency reviews. “There’s never been a program like this to recognize that a regime of mass incarceration is excessive, not only from a human-rights perspective, but from a cost perspective. Most of these cases you’d expect five to seven years for these crimes. You would not expect this.”

“What Obama’s done is to take 872 small steps towards justice,” Newman said. “Virtually everyone involved in the criminal justice system knows that federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums that were imposed due to laws passed in the 1980s were a gargantuan mistake. They destroyed lives, they destroyed families, they destroyed the fabric of communities, and these laws did all that without serving one single purpose of sentencing. They were unnecessary, expensive, and brutal without reason. Presidential commutation of a modest number these sentences is, of course, significant to the families and to the individuals, and hopefully it will pave the way for a more commonsense approach in federal and state sentencing in the future.”

He added, “And like most wars, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of innocent victims in the war on drugs.”

Eisenberg added, “It’s a very humanizing, very meaningful experience for us to connect with (the inmates) ... Often you hear the wisdom that comes from a decade of self-reflection, introspection and remorse. Doing this work, for me, is humbling. You just realize sometimes how awry the system has gone, how out of touch the remedy is with the reality of what was appropriate; how misguided.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269