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ACLU Files Commutation Petition On Behalf Of Man Serving Unjust Prison Sentence For Non-Violent Crime

Written by Featured Organization on 19 January 2011.

Kenneth Lumpkin Victim Of Discriminatory Sentencing Disparity Between Crack And Powder Cocaine

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union and the Los Angeles-based law firm Caldwell Leslie and Proctor, PC today asked President Obama to commute the remaining sentence of Kenneth J. Lumpkin, a father of four serving the 15th year of an unjust 20-year prison sentence for a non-violent offense. Along with a commutation petition, the ACLU today filed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney over 30 letters in support of commutation for Lumpkin, including several from staff members at the Taft Correctional Institution in California, the minimum security facility where Lumpkin is currently incarcerated.

“I accept full responsibility for what I did, and it is not an exaggeration to say I regret it every day,” Lumpkin said. “But my hope is that you see clearly the man I have become and that I have made a lifetime commitment to change. My 20-year prison sentence is clearly excessive, and if you find it in your heart to commute my sentence there would be no words to express my deepest gratitude.”

Lumpkin was convicted in 1996 of a non-violent drug-related offense for playing a minor role in a conspiracy to sell and distribute crack cocaine. Lumpkin’s 20-year sentence was mandated by law under unfair and discriminatory U.S. sentencing guidelines that, at the time of his sentencing, punished crack cocaine related offenses 100 times more severely than offenses related to powder cocaine. At the time of his sentencing, the judge in Lumpkin’s case lamented what he called the “very, very harsh” nature of the sentence called for by law, saying that his “hands [we]re tied.” And after presiding over a recent motion to have Lumpkin’s sentence reduced, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter praised Lumpkin for his efforts to rehabilitate himself before reluctantly concluding that “the law as it stands does not allow for this Court to reduce Lumpkin’s sentence.”

Lumpkin is one of thousands of people in this country, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, who have been given extremely long sentences under the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress last year reduced the disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 but did not fully eliminate it.

Had Lumpkin’s offense involved powder instead of crack cocaine – the same quantity of the same drug in a different form – his mandatory minimum sentence would have been 10 years instead of 20, he would have already served his entire sentence, he would have been there to watch his children graduate from high school and the birth of his first grandchild and he would have been able to help care for his mother, who is recuperating from a stroke she suffered several years ago.

“The case of Kenny Lumpkin exemplifies why it is so urgent that our country re-think mandatory minimum sentences and a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing,” said Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “The Fair Sentencing Act was a step in the right direction, but individuals like Kenny have fallen through the cracks, and it is essential that the president use his commutation power to right these historical, but still ongoing, wrongs.”

Lumpkin is the latest person to seek commutation as part of a larger project designed by the ACLU called “Dear Mr. President, Yes You Can,” which brings together civil rights advocates, legal scholars, law school clinics, pro bono counsel and others to urge President Obama to use his pardon and commutation power in a principled way, consistent with his administration’s position that the crack sentencing guidelines have been far too harsh. The project also aims to promote the president’s clemency power as a means to correct historical injustices. Last year, the ACLU filed a commutation petition with President Obama on behalf of Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother now serving the 18th year of an unjust 27-year prison sentence for a first time, non-violent crack cocaine conspiracy offense. That petition is still pending after nearly a full year.

Though Lumpkin’s excessive punishment as a result of the crack-powder sentencing disparity is not unique, his conduct while incarcerated has demonstrated a level of rehabilitation that officials at his correctional institution consider extraordinary. After being transferred several years ago from a medium security prison to a fenceless minimum security camp several years ago, Lumpkin has taken virtually all of the college courses available to him, teaches two art classes a week to fellow prisoners and leads them in a community mural painting project, is active in his Native American religious group, and is executive chairman of a group called Those Outspoken Against Drugs (TOAD), a select group of prisoners who speak to teenagers at local schools and juvenile halls about taking responsibility for one’s own actions, making good choices and the dangers of drugs.

Lumpkin’s conduct at the camp has earned the respect and sincere admiration of not only fellow inmates – both long-timers and those recently incarcerated – but also of members of the prison staff, including the Associate Warden, who have all written to declare their support for Mr. Lumpkin’s early release.

“Only the president can do what is right for Kenny, his family and friends, all the other prisoners who look up to Kenny as a role model for their own rehabilitation and the correctional officers who point to Kenny as a model prisoner,” said Michael V. Schafler of Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC. “Granting Kenny’s commutation will signal to everyone who has watched Kenny work tirelessly to better himself, including his fellow prisoners, the children in his neighborhood and church, and those with whom he has worked through the TOAD program, that it is never too late to change.”

Additional information about the ACLU’s work on behalf of Lumpkin and Hasan, including a newly released video documenting Hasan’s story, is available online at: www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org <http://www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org>