We’re Winding Down the War on Weed — But Not Fast Enough

Crystal Munoz gave birth as a federal prisoner. She had just one night to hold her newborn before she was taken back to the holding facility. Crystal screamed and cried. An officer demanded she calm down. After that, she kept crying, but quietly.

In February, she was granted clemency after advocates and criminal justice reformers petitioned the White House for her early release. She was back home with her two daughters on February 21.

“To see them and to be free and to be with them is the most beautiful feeling in the world,” Munoz told Truthdig. “It’s the biggest blessing I’ve been blessed with in my whole lifetime.”

Munoz’ crime: A few years back, some friends asked her to draw a map. The friends ended up being indicted in a drug-trafficking conspiracy, mostly for marijuana. They would go on to claim that they used her map to circumvent a drug check-point.  She was offered a plea deal that would have resulted in at least a 10-year-sentence. That seemed unfathomable with young kids. Crystal thought she hadn’t done anything that bad and went to trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

She admits that she should have faced some kind of consequences for her actions. But it never made any sense that the federal government was keeping her in prison for almost two decades, away from her daughters and husband. She notes that she had responsibilities on the outside, including raising her kids. On the inside she felt useless, unable to fulfill her duty as a parent and as a citizen. “My kids are out here. There are bills to be paid, it’s not like I was paying my bills from prison. There has to be an alternative.”

A lot of people might not realize how conspiracy charges work. Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO clemency, a group that advocates for non-violent drug offenders, explains. “Crystal is a prime example of the conspiracy statute run amok. She drew a map to circumvent check points on the reservation,” Povah told Truthdig. “That is not an illegal act. But the conspiracy law can take a legal action and if the feds deem it an overt act that moves a conspiracy one step in the furtherance of a conspiracy you can be held responsible for all the illegal acts contributed to the co-conspirators many of whom you might not of even met or conspired with.”

For years, Povah has worked relentlessly for Munoz’ release. In the past year, her campaign picked up steam. “Jason Hernandez asked me which Latinas needed help and I told him Crystal had filed a petition….the Texas AM students filed a supplement, and that’s the petition that got sent over to the White House,” Povah explains. Alice Marie Johnson, the federal prisoner who got clemency after her case was famously taken on by reality star Kim Kardashian, also lobbied hard for Crystal. “Of course Alice went hard for her cuz they were friends,” Povah says.

The reality has yet to sink in for Ricky, Crystal’s husband. “I’m very happy. I’m still feeling like I’m in a dream. You’d think it’d end more and more every day. I mean, we went to the White House, met up with Kim Kardashian… really man, that’s crazy. I still feel like I’m in a dream.”

There are few issues that confound traditional political alignments in the Trump era as much as clemency for non-violent drug offenders. Towards the end of his term, Obama granted a record number of clemency petitions to nonviolent drug criminals. Yet, the process was opaque. Prisoners who were turned down, like Munoz, had no idea why. After all, they were in prison for more or less the same drugs that the hip then-President had bragged about trying. Critics pointed out that it’s arbitrary — and counterintuitive — for clemency petitions to be reviewed in the Department of Justice, which is a building full of prosecutors.

When Trump took office, activists hoped that the president’s willingness to circumvent procedure might actually work in prisoners’ favor (traditionally presidents don’t grant clemencies their first term). In a sense they were right: after reality star Kim Kardashian personally appealed to the president in Alice Marie Johnson’s case, Johnson was home with her family within weeks. Yet the optics of the president making life-and-death decisions based on personal asks from Kardashian rattled his critics.

At its worst, the tendency manifested in liberals and mainstream media pillorying Kardashian. “Trump meets Rump!” the New York Post gloated. On the View, the hosts fretted that the president was once again dangerously blowing up standard procedure. Others derided Kardashian for lacking expertise. It almost seemed as if progressives were fighting the release of a black grandmother who was serving a life without parole sentence for playing a low-level role in a drug conspiracy. She’d already spent 22 years behind bars.

At the time, Johnson’s counsel, Brittany Barnett, told me that Kardashian’s advocacy was essential to the case and deserved respect. “First of all, she’s at the White House advocating on behalf of Ms. Alice. You do not need to be an expert to know that Ms. Alice does not deserve to die in prison.”

“That’s a humanitarian issue. She’s using her platform to literally save someone’s life. You don’t have to be an expert to know this shit is wrong.”

Munoz’ case wasn’t as high profile as Johnson’s. But it nevertheless generated stories like this New York Times feature that seemed to conflate Munoz’ and Johnsons’ commutations with those of more controversial figures like Bernard B. Kerik. “The 11 Criminals Granted Clemency by Trump Had One Thing in Common: Connections” the headline read, suggesting there was something untoward about Munoz’ release.

Mark Osler, a former prosecutor who now advocates for less harsh sentencing and clemency policies, points out why “connections” were necessary in the first place. It’s because the traditional system doesn’t work.

“I think the fact that they had to do a workaround of the regular process to free someone as worthy as Crystal tells us how broken the process is,” Osler tells Truthdig.

“You’ve got thousands and thousands of people waiting who submitted their petitions to the pardon attorney and we don’t know where those stand. And there’s this process driven by Fox news and people close to the president that doesn’t seem capable of addressing those large numbers.”

Osler, who is a contributor to The Hill, notes that solution is straightforward.

“Take the pardon attorney out of the Department of Justice. Create a bipartisan clemency commission and have them make the evaluations and recommendations directly to the president.”

He also cautions against scapegoating former prisoners like Munoz and Johnson just because they were freed by Trump, rather than Obama.

“Despite what anyone might say or criticize, there is nothing bad about Crystal Munoz having freedom. And I think that’s important to say.”

As pot becomes legal around the country and wealthy people are making money in an increasingly lucrative industry, it seems intolerable that anyone should serve a day in jail for doing or selling drugs: yet there are still people serving long sentences for drugs, including marijuana, thanks to mandatory minimums and other tough-on-crime measures embraced by Republicans and Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amy Povah, who herself was caught up in a drug trafficking conspiracy, says there are plenty of more cases similar to hers.

“Like Crystal I met many women who were serving the longest sentence within a drug conspiracy case even though they were the least participatory,” she says. “Essentially these women and some men are serving 20 to life for exercising their 6th amendment right to a trial and suffer the trial penalty phase because a judge has no discretion and must impose strict mandatory sentencing regulated by the sentencing guideline chart that was created during the zero tolerance tough on crime drug era of the late 80s.”

“Almost Everyone CANDO is advocating for went to trial and ended up with 15 to life as a result of exercising their constitutional rights. That is an abomination of justice!”

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