The Inner Workings of a Federal Commutation
by Manpreet Teji
This past year I had the wonderful opportunity to work at the Federal Defender Program of the Northern District of Illinois. Through this internship, I worked on multiple clemency applications asking President Obama to grant federal commutations.
The majority of our clients were non-violent drug offenders who received unjust sentences. I assisted in reviewing drafts of the clemency petitions, setting up a campaign where people could support those clemency petitions, and making the public aware of these stories.
Two of the applications I worked on were men sentenced to life because of a prosecutor’s single, unreviewable decision under the federal “three strikes” drug law (18 USC § 851). Section 851 allows prosecutors to use two prior drug convictions (as simple as possession) as the basis to demand a life sentence.
Once a prosecutor makes the decision to file under § 851, a judge loses the power to impose any other sentence except life. That is exactly what the prosecutors did to Alton Mills and Ismael Rosa.
Both Mills and Rosa had two prior probationary drug offenses (and they both successfully completed probation in those cases). Neither had a history of violence. In fact, neither Mills nor Rosa had ever spent a day in prison before they were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives there. Yet they each found themselves spending an average of 20 years in prison.
These are just two of many men and women who face unjust sentences because of poor sentencing guidelines that have been enforced by the United States Congress. Through amendments and changes, § 851 is less enforced today and it is likely that if Mills and Rosa were both sentenced today for the same crimes, they would receive lesser sentences.
Unfortunately, even though changes have occurred, those changes could not retroactively allow for Mills and Rosa to be released. Their only way to seek a lower sentence was getting an executive commutation.
With a team of two attorneys, three law students, one investigator, and one administrative assistant we were able to file the clemency petitions for both men. They received a great amount of support from their families and loved ones who wrote letters and sent messages and videos to President Barack Obama asking for their father, son, and sibling to return home.
One of the best feelings I have experienced through a legal internship, and probably my life, was when I found out Alton Mills was granted an executive commutation.
I was overjoyed to meet Mills in January of 2016 and to learn how happy he is to be living the life that he had lost for the last 22 years. He has been reunited with his daughter, who was only 19 months old when he was sentenced, and was able to see her graduate from nursing school.
I was happy to also experience Ismael Rosa’s commutation in March of 2016. Being able to be part of a team that worked to give these men a second chance at life was a remarkable experience. These moments have provided a learning experience for me and a framework for where I see myself working – in criminal justice reform and criminal defense.