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.