“I believe at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.” - President Obama
This summer, Denver Broncos fans were thrilled to learn that much-loved wide receiver Demaryius Thomas signed a 70 million dollar deal, keeping him with the Broncos for five more years.
And while this was great news for the team and its supporters, Thomas himself received even greater news: he learned his mother, imprisoned since he was 11, would have her sentence commuted and be released on November 10, 2015.
"God is good," Thomas posted on Facebook. "Great news today, My Best lady come home November 10.. Godbless.."
On July 10th of this year, President Obama, after careful review of numerous cases, commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, including Katina Smith, Thomas’ mom, stating simply that the punishments did not fit the crimes. The majority of the offenders were sentenced for offenses related to crack cocaine which historically received higher sentences than cocaine charges alone; two of those commuted sentences were for marijuana charges.
What is a commuted sentence?
Commuting a sentence means that the conviction remains on the record but the sentence is reduced. This is different than a pardon, which completely forgives the crime and eliminates the penalty. In addition to these commutations, the President also visited El Reno, a medium security federal prison in Oklahoma, the first sitting president to visit a prison. He called for prison reforms including drug treatment, job training and education opportunities, restoring the voting rights of ex-felons and making it easier for ex-prisoners to go back to work. He has also called to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums, allowing judges and prosecutors to have more discretion in sentencing on a case by case basis.
More Prison Reforms Coming
These actions are part of a larger push for sentencing and prison reform. There has been a backlash in recent years (on both sides of the political fence) to change the harsh sentencing rules introduced the 1980s, including mandatory minimums. These laws have increased the number of incarcerated people and have disproportionately hurt people of color and the poor. Additionally, from a legal standpoint, mandatory minimums can upset the balance of power between legislature and judiciary, as the laws force judges to give sentences that may not be, in their assessment, the best punishment for the case at hand.
Part of this push for reform is changing attitudes towards drugs and their use, including marijuana legalization. But it also stems from the terrible problems of having a high incarceration rate. These include overcrowding, abuse in prison and high rates of recidivism. And the costs are tremendous. The US bureau of Justice Statistics states it averages $31,286 annually to house an inmate in a state prison. In contrast, a drug rehab program would run about $8,000 per year, a significantly lower expense with far better outcomes. A thoughtful approach to reform can improve the situation, giving more people the second chances they deserve as individuals, bringing families back together, and making us a stronger nation as a whole.
Katina Smith will be released just before the Broncos play the Chiefs at home in Denver. And while Broncos fans look forward to the many successes of their team, they will also see Thomas play a first - a professional game with his mom looking on in the stands. That’s a win every fan can take pride in.
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