More than 200,000 women and girls are incarcerated in this country — 10,000 of them in federal prisons — and Danielle Metz used to be one of them.
Metz was married to an alleged drug kingpin and had two small children, 3 and 7 years old, when she was sentenced in 1993 for drug conspiracy and money laundering convictions. She had never been in legal trouble before, "not even a traffic ticket," she says. "I was sentenced to three life sentences and when I came in the system they didn't have parole or anything like that anymore. So I was just doing time day for day. The process was really hard. My family didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted my appeals. Clemency was my only hope."
Nothing came of Metz's first clemency petition, however things started to change when prosecutors wrote a letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney on her behalf. In August 2016, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.
"That was after 23 years and 8 months of serving," Metz says.
The U.S. Constitution gives the president power to grant clemency for a person who committed a federal crime. Typically that's either a commutation, which reduces a person's sentence, or a pardon, which absolves them of a crime. Metz works now with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. As part of a clemency campaign, the group is asking President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women during his first 100 days in office.
The Council's founder and executive director Andrea James says draconian penalties and mandatory minimum sentences that escalated the country's "war on drugs" including the 1994 crime bill and the government's increased use of drug conspiracy charges swept up too many people who had marginal if any roles in drug trafficking.
"When I was in federal prison, there were women that were there for conspiracy who never touched a drug, they didn't see a drug," says James, who was incarcerated for two years on a wire fraud conviction. "If you took conspiracy out of the equation, you could not justify these women sitting in prison for 10, 15, 20, 25 years and life without parole sentences and it's just absolutely heartbreaking."
During his days in the U.S. Senate, Biden authored or supported many of the tough on crime bills that critics say have had a disparate impact on Black neighborhoods and increased the prison population. He has since offered criminal justice reforms that counter some of the earlier legislation. James and the National Council say the president should continue righting wrongs by granting the clemency requests of the 100 women they believe should be released.
The group's primary focus is on the elderly and women serving life without parole for drug cases.
"The second category are women who are sick," James says. "They have chronic or terminal illness and they are in prison during COVID-19.
The U.S. Department of Justice publishes clemency statistics going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt in the 1900s. The numbers from recent years show President George W. Bush pardoned 189 people and commuted 11 sentences. Obama, who encouraged people to file petitions during his administration's clemency initiative, granted 212 pardons and commuted the sentences of 1,715 people. President Donald Trump, who largely bypassed the traditional Justice Department process for some of his clemency decisions, granted 143 pardons and commuted 94 sentences during his presidency. The Justice Department also shows, at last count, nearly 400 clemency petitions asking for President Biden to pardon or commute sentences have been filed.
Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and an expert on clemency, says there's certainly a need to grant thousands of clemency petitions. The problem she says is that the system is broken with no transparency about how requests are handled.
"It's a black box," Barkow says, "so there's no telling where those 100 women would fit in the clemency process or the Biden administration's priorities."
As part of Obama's clemency initiative, Barkow co-founded a clemency resource center that obtained commutations for 96 people. However, Barkow says the Obama initiative is also, in part, the reason why there is a 14,000 person clemency backlog since a deluge of women and men — more than 36,000 — filed clemency petitions during that time. And that backlog grew during the Trump administration.
Also at fault says Barkow is the slow, bureaucratic process of how clemency applications are approved or denied. It's a procedure that begins at the U.S. Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. Barkow says its long past due to take the process out of the Justice Department and to let an independent body review clemency petitions and make recommendations to the president.
"It just does not make sense to ask prosecutors to make these decisions. There's a bias there," Barkow says. "The prosecutor who looks at is really focused on the initial crime and what the person did, but clemency is so much more about who that person is today."
So as the countdown on President Biden's first 100 days continues, incarcerated women, their families and supporters say they will continue to implore the president to grant 100 women clemency over the next few months. They will also urge him to ignore the presidential practice of offering clemency as a gift near the end of a term in office.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There are more than 200,000 women and girls incarcerated in this country, and more than 10,000 of them are serving time in federal prison. Some want out now and are asking President Biden during the first days of his presidency to commute their sentences, which they say are unjust. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For more than two decades, Danielle Metz was among the thousands of women living in a federal prison until then-President Barack Obama approved her petition for clemency in August of 2016.
DANIELLE METZ: After 23 years and eight months of serving - you know, I was sentenced to three life sentences plus 20 years. The process was really hard because my family really didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted all my appeals. Clemency was my only hope.
CORLEY: And the president is the only one who can do that, according to the U.S. Constitution - either commuting or reducing a sentence for a federal crime or granting a pardon down the line. Metz says she expected punishment, not just a life sentence. She was married to an alleged drug kingpin and sentenced in 1993 on a drug conspiracy and money laundering conviction. Although considered a nonviolent offender, under the conspiracy guidelines, she was held liable for all the acts of violent co-defenders she had never met as well.
METZ: When I came in the system, they didn't have any parole or anything like that anymore. So I was just doing time day for day.
CORLEY: Now Metz works with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The group's founder, Andrea James, says draconian penalties, mandatory minimum sentences and drug conspiracy charges are part of the reason why the incarceration rate for women has spiraled over several years. She says too often it's meant excessive consequences that far outweigh the crimes.
ANDREA JAMES: When I was in federal prison, there were women that were there for conspiracy who never touched a drug; they didn't see a drug. If you took conspiracy out of it - the equation, you could not justify these women sitting in prison for 10, 15, 20, 25 and life with no parole sentences. And it's just absolutely heartbreaking.
CORLEY: As a U.S. senator, President Biden wrote or supported many of the tough-on-crime bills that critics say have had a disparate impact on Black neighborhoods and increased the prison population. He's since offered reforms, but James says Biden should continue righting wrongs by granting clemency during his first 100 days for 100 women that the National Council believes should be released. That includes women serving life without parole for drug cases.
JAMES: The second category are women who are sick. They have chronic or terminal illness, and they are in prison during COVID-19.
RACHEL BARKOW: While there's certainly a need to grant thousands of clemency petitions, the problem is that the process is broken.
CORLEY: That's Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and an expert on clemency. She says there's a 14,000-person backlog of federal prison clemency requests. And she blames, in part, the drawn-out review process that begins with the Department of Justice. Barkow says it's time for an independent body to take over vetting clemency petitions and advising the president.
BARKOW: It just does not make sense to ask prosecutors to make these decisions. There's a bias there where the prosecutor who looks at it is really focused on the initial crime and what the person did. But you know, clemency is so much more about who that person is today.
CORLEY: Incarcerated women, their families and supporters say they agree, but the more immediate concern is getting the president to commute the sentences of 100 women over the next few months instead of following a presidential tradition of granting clemency for many near the end of a term.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.