In July 2011, a New Orleans man convicted of cocaine distribution wrote a five-page letter to the federal judge overseeing his case, asking for freedom.
Brian Nickles said he was paralyzed, his family was struggling to make ends meet after the death of his mother and prison officials were denying him the opportunity to take GED classes — not because of bad behavior, but because his scheduled release date was a decade away.
Nine months later, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman dismissed his plea for mercy in a one-page form letter. Nickles was ineligible for a sentence reduction, Feldman wrote, because of the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence he earned under strict federal guidelines after being convicted of distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine in 2004.
Nickles very likely would have remained in federal prison for years. On Monday, however, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence and those of 45 other nonviolent drug offenders across the country in what sentencing reform advocates hope will be a historic first step toward reducing the federal prison population.
“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority have been sentenced to at least 20 years,” Obama said in a video showing him signing the commutations. “Their punishments did not fit their crime, and if they would have been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have served their time.”
Nickles, 46, and James Nathan Walton, 42, of Thibodaux, were the two Louisiana residents whose sentences were commuted.
An inmate at the Beaumont, Texas, Correctional Facility, Nickles was scheduled for release in 2021. Under the president’s order, he will be released on Nov. 10.
Walton, also sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2004 for his conviction on possession with intent to distribute cocaine, was also slated for release in 2021. He is imprisoned at the Pollock federal prison in central Louisiana. He also will be released on Nov. 10.
In April 2014, the U.S. Justice Department outlined the criteria for what promised to be a massive, nationwide clemency push for prisoners sentenced under federal drug laws. Although 30,000 federal inmates asked for clemency, a mere two had received shorter sentences before Monday.
Obama’s new announcement has now given hope to advocates that he will make an even more aggressive effort to reduce the federal prison population before he leaves office in January 2017.
“We’re thrilled to see that more folks serving excessively long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses are going home,” said Julie Stewart, president of the national nonprofit group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But they’re leaving behind many equally deserving people, so let’s keep these commutations coming, while remembering that clemency is a tool made necessary by our failure to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Congress simply can’t act fast enough.”
The president said he would outline efforts to revamp the criminal justice system during a speech Tuesday at the NAACP’s 106th national convention in Philadelphia.
Nickles’ clemency request may have gained particular attention from the White House because of the conditions outlined in his 2011 motion to Feldman.
Nickles wrote that he was a paraplegic, and he included a medical record from the Beaumont prison stating that he was confined to a wheelchair. It is not clear whether his condition has improved since then.
“Mr. Nickles’ sentence was excessively harsh for an able-bodied nonviolent offender,” Stewart said. “That he faced dying in prison while largely incapacitated is further evidence that our sentencing laws are not only unjust, but nonsensical.”
Nickles also bemoaned the fact that his long sentence made him ineligible to take GED classes under his prison’s rules, because other prisoners closer to their release dates were granted priority.
“I am in a severely wasteful situation at present,” he wrote. “Being that it is difficult for me to receive timely, proper and adequate treatment and supplies for my paralysis, it would be beneficial for the court to help me to be released.”