U.S.: Serving Life Without Parole For Pot, Man Denied Clemency
By Derrick Stanley
Ferrell Scott was sentenced to life in prison for possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana, a drug that's now legal in many states. Scott, a black man with no hope for parole despite an exemplary behavior record, appealed to President Obama for clemency. He learned his appeal was denied when he received an e-mail about "bad news" from a friend. He called home, worried that something had happened to his 93-year-old mother.
His daughter answered the phone, crying, and told him the news. “She cried like a baby and she was telling me that she didn’t know what she was supposed to do now. Couldn’t understand it,” Scott told The Watch in a phone interview.
“Why haven’t I been contacted? I hope this is a mistake. My God I’m f—–!” he wrote to Amy Povah, who runs CAN-DO, an advocacy group for prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.
His name was on the list of clemency denials published on the Justice Department’s website on Tuesday.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do, what’s gonna happen,” Scott says. “Well, I kind of know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. I don’t know, man, I’m so depressed and shaken. I honestly thought I would get it.” Scott then brings up a good point: Obama has admitted to using the drug that landed Scott in prison for life.
The list of prisoners denied clemency is headlined “COMMUTATIONS DENIED BY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA.” The language seems to suggest that the president personally reviewed and made a decision on each case, but that's not how it works.
What the president does see is the advice of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney and then the White House counsel. While Obama has commuted the sentences of a record number of prisoners --over 1,000-- some advocates say the decision-making process is too arbitrary and slow.
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, says the problem lies in the process, which is long and inefficient. “It’s not like everyone sits down and decides together. It’s a bunch of different people in different offices, they all have different perspectives. Even a minor failure at any of those steps and everything grinds to a halt.”
“The program is embedded in the DOJ, which is a building full of prosecutors,” he says. “Obama clearly cared about the project of clemency, a fact that was reflected in the letter he sent to each clemency recipient,” Osler wrote in a paper published this year, “Given that interest, one wonders why his administration was so slow to take up a significant number of clemency cases. The answer, very likely, lies in the layers of redundant bureaucracy.”
Ferrell Scott may have been denied because he has been in prison for only eight years, and one of the guidelines for clemency under the program is that the person have served 10 years.
“We are devastated for Ferrell and his family and believe this is why President Obama must consider a plan that will reduce the life sentences of every nonviolent lifer to no more than 20 years, but in Ferrell’s case, a nonviolent pot case, we hope Obama will ask the pardon attorney for a reconsideration since it’s perfectly within his authority to do so,” Povah, the advocacy group leader, wrote to The Watch.
Families and communities suffer when family members are put in prison for life. Scott's son Skylar was so good at football he had scholarship opportunities from dozens of colleges, but he lost momentum after his father was locked up. “I started him playing football when he was 5 years old,” Scott told The Watch. “When I got locked up in 2008, he was going into his senior year. He took it really hard. He had big plans, but all his plans included me being there. I was always in his life before.”
“It’s hard on all my kids. [Scott’s daughter] Serrell was so upset she couldn’t even talk to me on the phone.”
Immediately after finding out the news, Scott wrote in a letter to Povah, “There are no words to describe how I’m feeling right now. I’m numb and there is a huge void in my chest. I wish I was f—— dead right now but I have to talk to Skylar to make sure he’s alright.”