A 53-year-old from Philadelphia who has been serving a life sentence on drug charges is among the 61 prisoners whose sentences President Obama commuted Wednesday.
In 1996, Vernon Harris was sentenced to life in prison for possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute and carrying a gun illegally. He pleaded guilty to the charges in a deal with the government.
At the time, he had three prior convictions for felony drug trafficking, court records show, and that classified him as a career offender under sentencing guidelines. His mandatory punishment was life in prison.
He’s been serving that time at a federal prison in Fairton, South Jersey.
“The career offenders. The guidelines are really high,” said attorney Joe Santaguida, who represented Harris 20 years ago.
Since then, reformed sentencing guidelines have reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, though the changes weren’t applied retroactively.
What does Santaguida think his former client would have been received had he been sentenced today?
“Maybe the most,” he said, “would be five years mandatory.”
Federal prosecutors also supported the release, since the U.S. attorney’s office was given an opportunity to weigh in about the potential risk to public safety before Harris’ commuted sentence was announced.
“We fully support the president’s effort to commute sentences of appropriate defendants, many of whom have already served lengthy sentences of imprisonment and no longer pose a threat,” said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. “It is a very laudable goal to provide second chances to some offenders.”
Most of the 61 commuted sentences were of prisoners, like Harris, who were serving long, sometimes life, sentences for dealing crack.
The Obama administration had originally said that as many as 10,000 federal prisoners could be released under the White House clemency initiative to cut down the country’s prison population. After the administration asked for clemency applications from federal inmates, more than 30,000 applied.
So far, Obama has commuted the sentences of just 248 inmates who were charged during the era of tough crack laws.
Still, that’s more cases of clemency than the past six presidents combined.
Harris had petitioned federal appeals courts on a number of occasions seeking a new sentence, but his petitions were denied each time.