MORGANTOWN – The last few decades of the 21st century were a bad time to be a non-violent drug offender in the United States. The War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing and the Office of National Drug Control Policy teamed up to make sure plenty of people would do long stretches – even life – in federal prison.
While some truly bad people landed exactly where they deserved, behind bars, others paid a steep price for one bad decision. Clarence Aaron, a go-between paid $1,500 to introduce two drug dealers, ended up with three life sentences thanks to a “conspiracy amendment” attached to a then federal mandatory minimum sentencing law.
And his case is not unusual.
But now President Obama has been granting clemency to federal prisoners at a steady rate. Third-year law students, including Adriana Faycurry who is working under the auspices of the West Virginia College of Law, have successfully undertaken the increased clemency rate to gain the release of federal prisoners such as Dwayne Walker.
In 1997, Walker received a mandatory life sentence for selling crack cocaine, which was not an unusual punishment under sentencing guidelines of the day. A model prisoner from the beginning, Walker filled the years since his conviction writing children’s books, completing vocational certificates and planning a non-profit organization for inner-city youth.
Faycurry recently spoke to The West Virginia Record about her experience in helping make Walker a free man again.
“Mr. Walker and I met for the first time on Tuesday, April 19,” Faycurry said. “But even so, I was able to get to know him very well before then.”
Over the course of building a working file on her client, she had already received his pre-sentencing report, inmate progress reports and criminal record file, all offering at least a glimpse of the person for whom she would be working.
“Those documents just scratched the surface,” Faycurry said. “The clemency application requires the inmate to be honest and personal, but Mr. Walker had no problem opening up to me.”
After almost two decades behind bars, Walker was released from the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), Petersburg, a low- and medium-security facility, on April 19. He was transported to a transitional/halfway house, where he will stay until July 28, at which point he will receive a full release.
“The application recommends including ‘letters of support’ from family and friends to vouch for the inmate’s character,” Faycurry said. “He had maintained strong bonds with his family, which I witnessed when I asked them to write the letters, and again when I read those letters. I knew Mr. Walker before I ever met him.”
Have the mandatory sentencing guidelines changed much since Walker ran afoul of them in 1997? Faycurry isn’t so sure.
“It seems like mandatory sentencing is just as harsh,” she said. “But the quantity of drugs needed to trigger the mandatory minimums has increased compared to that in the mid-1990s.”
According to Faycurry, the real problem in prison may be something else entirely.
“I think the federal government still has not realized that most of the drug offenders who are arrested or currently incarcerated, are the low-level corner drug dealers," she said. "The people who can be easily replaced, and have no real control or power in the drug world, or even a connection to those who do have that power.”