A New Lease on Life

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System7 Comments

In 1992, Rudolph Norris, 58, was convicted of possessing and selling crack-cocaine and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 30 years. He would have received a greatly reduced sentence for the same non-violent crime today but his conviction came during the war-on-drugs debacle of decades past. According to federal data, roughly ½ of the 1.5 million federal and state prisoners presently incarcerated are drug-related offenders. At Mr. Norris’s 1993 pre-sentencing hearing it was reported that “There was no victim in this offense.” Still, Norris was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Why do I write about this? I write about this because Mr. Norris is one of the lucky ones.

He is one of only 22 people out of thousands who have applied for commutation of their sentences to be released through a continuing bipartisan push to shorten the sentences of non-violent drug offenders. Norris received a letter from President Obama stating, “I wanted to personally inform you that I have granted your application for commutation.” Mr. Norris was a model prisoner and had the legal support of Courtney Francik, a third year law student volunteering her time in the George Washington University Law School’s Neighborhood Law and Policy Clinic.

But now what? Does Mr. Norris really have a new lease on life? Yes and no.

Most people don’t realize that for Mr. Norris this is just the first step. He’s been “away” for 22 years during which time a whole digital culture has risen up. He’s never used a cell phone, never surfed the internet, never applied for a job on-line. Jobs and housing all involve background checks and when an employer or landlord reads the answer on an application to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” that application, for the most part, goes to the bottom of the pile.

Mr. Norris has family who are temporarily giving him someplace to live. But, like most former inmates, he wants to stand on his own two feet. We have to do better as a nation to train our prisoners for gainful employment after they serve their sentence and to encourage employers to look beyond their record and give them a chance. Data shows that the initial job search for ex-inmates typically lasts between nine months and 2 years and tends to result in custodial work or jobs in restaurant or hotel services.

Hopefully, President Obama’s commitment to seriously address our nation’s criminal justice disgrace will lead to more people like Mr. Norris being released from draconian sentences and for us as a nation to give these men and women a second chance by hiring and housing them.

Check out the slide show of Mr. Norris’s first day out.

7 Comments on “A New Lease on Life”

  1. Kim

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. These cases are really crazy, how much money we spend on keeping innocent and/or harmless folks in jail, including those like Mr. Norris who don’t deserve the severe sentences. And what a waste for his family, his life, for society.

  2. Carolyn Butcher

    Such an important piece, Maureen. “We” have got to get away from seeing justice as punishment (or worse, retribution) and working towards a more perfect society through rehabilitation whenever possible.

    1. Maureen Murdock

      Thanks, Carolyn. And we have to accept that when individuals are released from prison, they have served their sentence, have been punished, have been deprived of their rights, and need compassionate employers to hire them so they can get on with achieving productive lives.

  3. cindy allyn

    As always .Maureen this is clear and concise.So much of what should be easy ends up fraught with problems.,What is the solution?
    ,

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