Obama’s Clemency Program Has Failed Incarcerated Women

For the many women who will likely spend the majority of their lives in prison if they are not granted clemency by the Obama administration, time is running out.

Lori Kavitz is a 57-year-old woman who has been in federal prison since 2001. Kavitz was a first-time offender who was sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison after her boyfriend was arrested for dealing methamphetamine and she was deemed his “assistant.” Kavitz had fallen into drugs and this relationship following her husband’s suicide. Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence of any kind in her case, she was convicted under conspiracy laws based on hearsay evidence.

At the time of her sentencing, the judge on her case, Honorable Judge Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa, called her sentence “a prime example of the idiocy of the United States Sentencing Guidelines” and “another of the the many, many, many, examples of what I consider to be unjust sentences that I’ve been forced to impose.” He went on to say, “…this is in my opinion an idiotic, arbitrary, unduly harsh, and grossly unfair sentence. And I don’t have to like it. I have to impose it because that’s my obligation under the law.”

In 2014, Obama announced his Clemency Project (CP14), intended for incarcerated people like Kavitz who were sentenced under overly draconian mandatory minimum and conspiracy laws. The program, which former Attorney General Eric Holder estimated could give upwards of 10,000 incarcerated people a chance at freedom, was created for people who meet certain criteria:
1. Currently serving a federal sentence in prison 
2. Would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today (i.e., non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, those having served at least 10 years of their prison sentence, and those having demonstrated good conduct in prison).

Lori Kavitz is a mother of two boys, and is exactly the kind of prisoner this program was created for and yet, her clemency request was denied just last week. Advocates have no idea why. Meanwhile, men with much more significant criminal histories have already received clemency under the project.

Kavitz is not the only non-violent, first time offender with a lengthy sentence who has been denied clemency: Alice Johnson has served 20 years of a life sentence for attempted possession of cocaine. Michelle West, whose story was recently featured in Fusion, has been in prison for 23 years; she was sentenced to two life terms plus 50 years for drug conspiracy and murder charges because her boyfriend at the time was the co-defendant in the murder case. The confessed trigger man never served a day in prison for his role in the crime.

These are just a few of the women who should be shoo-ins for clemency under the Obama Administration’s program. Yet with less than a week to go before a new president is sworn in, there are still over 15,000 petitions pending, despite a commitment to review all petitions before Obama’s term ends, according to The Atlantic. For the many women who will likely spend the majority of their lives in prison if they are not granted clemency by the Obama administration, time is running out.

As of January 17, 2017, over 1,385 inmates had received clemency or been pardoned; only around 90 of those people are women, as far as Amy Povah, founder and president of the CAN-DO Foundation, can tell. CAN-DO—Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders—began in 2000 after Povah was released from prison after being granted clemency under President Bill Clinton.

As of January 17, 2017, over 1,385 inmates had received clemency or been pardoned; only around 90 of those people are women.

And while that number is similar to the ratio of men who are incarcerated to women that are incarcerated, advocates say that’s not a good enough argument for not releasing more women. “While women may make up 6.7% of the prison population, when you look at drug offenses, which is what Obama’s clemency program is supposed to address, it gets more complicated than that,” says Povah. The majority of women are arrested for drug or property offenses. Over the last 30 years, the women’s federal prison population increased 800%, while the men’s increased 419%. “We’re looking at women going into prison two to one with regard to the ratio,” explains Povah.

What happened 30 years ago to create this trend? That’s when the conspiracy laws and mandatory minimums, passed under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, began to kick in. Under conspiracy laws, there is no evidence required for conviction; just the word of a co-conspirator. These co-conspirators are often testifying in order to have their own sentences reduced. Conspiracy laws affected women in massive numbers, many of whom are girlfriends or family members of men involved in the drug trade, or are struggling with addiction themselves.

Povah explains that many women went to trial because they felt they had done nothing wrong and assumed they would be cleared of their charges or receive light sentences, not understanding how these new conspiracy laws worked. People who were very involved in the drug trade either took plea deals or testified against other people for lesser sentences, meaning many of them were released while women who did things like take a message for someone, or ride in a car where someone else was picking up drugs, are serving 30-year to life sentences.

“These are women who deserve to come home, who have served decades already,” says Andrea James, Executive Director of the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. “They were sentenced under draconian, harsh, barbaric policies steeped in racism and classism. It’s time for them to come home to their families or they will literally die in prison.”

Women who did things like take a message for someone, or ride in a car where someone else was picking up drugs, are serving 30-year to life sentences.

Many of the women who have applied for clemency under CP14 are some of the most vulnerable members of our society: people struggling with poverty, trauma, and drug addiction, James explains. Women of color, Black women specifically, are disproportionately affected. More than 70% of incarcerated women have children.

“When you’re incarcerating someone’s mother, you’re affecting everyone whose lives are touched by that person, too,” says James. The 2015 Ella Baker Center report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families found that family members deal with economic hardship as a result of incarceration, and many show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. These women and their families see CP14 as their last hope of ever getting released.

If this program doesn’t exist to help people who were victimized and punished under an unjust system, advocates say, then what is it for?

“President Obama has the power to do something about this and we have the solution,” James says. “That is to give clemency to folks that are on CAN-DO’s clemency list. This isn’t about trying to skirt the law, it’s about correcting an injustice and bringing people home who will die in prison for something no person should die in prison for.” Povah explains that, were Obama to issue blanket clemency for many of the people who meet the criteria, there is actually precedent for it.

If this program doesn’t exist to help people who were victimized and punished under an unjust system, advocates say, then what is it for?

She cites President Gerald Ford, who with one stroke of the pen, granted clemency to over 13,000 draft dodgers. At the eleventh hour, on January 17, President Obama granted clemency to 209 more people. That list includes former U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage, and three women from CAN-DO’s Top 25 list. But barring one more last minute sweep, too many women who advocates believe deserve to be released will remain in prison.

“People don’t realize that this process exists and is about to come to a close,” says James. “The majority of women in federal prison could be released under this and it’s not happening. Women are there who could come home and if they’re not released, they will spend rest of lives in federal prison.”