At just 25 years old, Ricky Eugene Patterson’s future seemed finished when he was imprisoned for life in 1995 for planning to peddle a handful of crack-cocaine rocks.
Last month, just days before Christmas, President Barack Obama gave the Fort Pierce man a new, long-awaited chance to make good on his remaining years. Obama commuted his life term — along with similarly lengthy or life sentences for seven other crack cocaine convicts nationwide, including two more in Florida.
Clemency for the fortunate few addressed only a tiny fraction of the roughly 9,000 federal inmates serving what critics have long called draconian prison terms for crack cocaine convictions. Yet the president’s action-focused new attention on a controversial U.S. sentencing policy adopted at the height of the nation’s war on drugs a generation ago — legislation that created a sharp racial divide in how the criminal justice system dealt with cocaine cases.
Crack cocaine offenses, more prevalent in poor black communities, carried much harsher punishment than those for powder cocaine, more common in affluent white communities.
“President Obama has struck a mighty symbolic blow against a crack cocaine sentencing law that appeared neutral on its face but was racially discriminatory in its application,” said prominent Miami attorney, H.T. Smith, who is black.
“In my considered judgment, if white defendants were being given jail sentences 100 times stiffer than black defendants for cocaine offenses, this law would have been fixed a decade ago and the lighter sentences would have been made retroactive.”
The president’s commutations, though modest, signaled his administration’s goal to reduce severe sentences in many drug cases. Critics say crack cocaine laws, in particular, were starkly unfair, citing a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses: For example, a person possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine was subject to the same mandatory prison sentence as someone convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack.
That chasm in prison time for crack versus powder cocaine offenses was significantly closed by Congress with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 — but it was not made retroactive to benefit inmates like Patterson. The law reduced the disparity between the amount of crack and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain U.S. criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 ratio. It also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession with intent to distribute 28 grams or less of crack cocaine, among other provisions.
The stiff mandatory-minimum sentences under the old law propelled an 800 percent increase in the U.S. prison population — mostly consisting of young black males like Patterson.
The new penalty guidelines under the Fair Sentencing Act were designed to reverse that trend. But because they were not made retroactive — a legislative policy that Congress is expected to consider this year — longtime felons such as Patterson had to turn to the president for their only possible relief.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement announcing the eight commutations. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
In late 2012, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration asked the Justice Department to evaluate pending clemency petitions to determine whether any involving current inmates with long sentences would have benefited from the guideline changes in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. Justice’s pardon office ultimately returned the eight cases, including Patterson’s, with recommendations for commutations.
Patterson’s defense attorney during his 1995 trial said he was thrilled with his former client’s commutation, saying he always considered the life sentence unfair because of the guideline disparities for crack versus powder cocaine and because his client was so young.
“I’m very happy for him,” said veteran Miami defense attorney Stephen Golembe. “I’ll shake his hand and the president’s.”
Patterson’s mother, who lives in Fort Pierce, did not return calls for comment. But a woman who identified herself as a relative on the phone acknowledged that the president’s clemency action was like “catching lightning in a bottle,” calling it “great news.”
Patterson, now 43, also could not be reached. He is now scheduled to be released in April from the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Sumterville, Fla. According to court records, he has spent the past 18 years taking vocational educational courses, including passing the GED high school equivalency exam, in pursuit of becoming, in his words, a “model person and example for younger inmates in prison.”
Over the years, Patterson, without the assistance of an appellate lawyer, had filed seven motions in the Southern District of Florida seeking to have his life sentence reduced — to no avail. His “pro se” motions were summarily rejected by Federal Judge K. Michael Moore, the district’s former chief judge. His most recent petition, rejected in January of last year, sought relief under the Fair Sentencing Act.
But, as federal prosecutors pointed out, the new sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders did not retroactively apply to his case. Moreover, they argued, his prior state criminal history gave the federal judge no choice but to maintain Patterson’s mandatory-minimum life sentence.
In July 1994, Patterson and two other men were stopped on Interstate 95 for speeding by police in Indian River County. The officers detected a strong smell of burnt marijuana and found five joints in the vehicle. After the three were arrested, the officers also found crack cocaine rocks and wafers weighing a total of 188 grams, or about seven ounces.
The following year, Patterson was found guilty at trial of conspiring to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine and possessing with intent to distribute the same amount of the drug. He faced between 17 and 22 years in prison under sentencing guidelines.
But because Patterson had two prior convictions for cocaine-possession offenses in the state system from 1989, the federal judge who had presided over his trial was required by law to enhance the defendant’s punishment and impose a mandatory minimum sentence of life.
In his repeated motions for a sentence reduction, Patterson argued that his co-defendant, Edward Griffin, the driver of the car, was also sentenced to life in prison. But his sentence was later reduced to 10 years because he assisted federal authorities in an unrelated case. The other car passenger, Victor Ingram, pleaded guilty before trial and received only a three-year sentence for his assistance.
Miami criminal defense attorney David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor who headed the narcotics section in the U.S. attorney’s office, said that before the late 1980s the punishment for trafficking in crack and powder cocaine was about the same.
But with the crack epidemic and related violence spreading in the nation’s inner cities, from New York to Los Angeles, lawmakers felt that concentrated crack was more dangerous than powder cocaine. So, Congress increased the sentencing weight ratio to 100-to-1 for crack versus powder cocaine offenders under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
Over the next decade, law enforcement agencies cracked down on drug traffickers, resulting in lower-level dealers with prior state criminal records being prosecuted and punished in the federal system like Colombian drug lords.
Weinstein said many politicians and judges — as well as the Federal Sentencing Commission — recognized that the disparity in punishment “had created an undesired effect.”
“Larger narco-traffickers were often looking at less time under the sentencing guidelines than lower street-level dealers,” Weinstein said. “Since the corrective legislation and sentencing guideline changes were not applied retroactively, the only way to begin to alleviate the inequality in the sentences was through commutations of sentences. The problem is that not all of the defendants were alike.
“So while there are 9,000 or so more of these crack cases out there, each one has to be evaluated individually,” he said. “This will take time and effort by the Justice Department and patience on the part of defendants.”