Last month, President Obama announced a new series of pardons and commutations for federal prisoners, just like he has for the past three years, just before the First Family leaves for their Christmas vacation.
Since he took office, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal prisoners, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes. After the most recent round last month, he has now commuted more inmates than the last five presidents combined.
On December 19, 2013, I was one of the people he chose. At the time, I was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime. In total, I spent 17 years behind bars for a crime committed at age 21. I was the first Latino man to receive clemency from President Obama, and I will be eternally grateful that he gave me a second chance.
But I’m baffled that of the 184 individuals who have received his mercy in the last seven years, not one has been a Latina. Latinas make up about 17% of the U.S. population and 33% of the women’s federal prison population. They are three times more likely to go to prison than white women. And the number of Latinos sent to federal prison nearly quadrupled between 1991 and 2007. There’s no shortage of worthy Latina candidates for a presidential clemency.
Take, for example, Elisa Castillo, a 56-year-old grandmother who unknowingly smuggled cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston. Because she had no information to negotiate a plea bargain with, she was indicted for conspiracy, went to trial, and received life without parole.
Then there’s Rita Becerra, who was arrested because of her involvement with her boyfriend’s drug dealing. Rita cooperated with the prosecution against her boyfriend, but because he cooperated too, he got just nine years and Rita 27 years—she has been in prison over 20 years.
And Josephine Ledezma, who in 1992 was sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime: she is now 57 and has been in prison 24 years.
President Obama has urged members of Congress to reform our broken criminal justice system and spoken eloquently about racial disparities in sentencing. One might want to blame him for failing to help incarcerated Latinas like these women, but the Latino community shoulders the blame as well. To my great disappointment, Latino groups like the National Council of La Raza or LULAC have not only remained silent about the president’s failure to commute the sentence of a single Latina, but also haven’t done enough to highlight the abuses of the War on Drugs more generally. This is a disgrace.
The War on Drugs should be called the War on Minorities. Harsh drug sentencing has deeply hurt the black and hispanic communities, especially our children. Studies show our drug policies have done more harm than good by breaking up families and decimating communities of color. Brown lives matter, too.
Only in November 2015 did prominent Latino leaders first join with the Drug Policy Alliance to call attention to the war on drugs and to discuss methods for getting Latinos involved in ending this madness. And yet, Telemundo, Univision, and other Latino news sources were nowhere to be found at this important meeting. Maybe whatever Donald Trump had to say that day was far more important to these news agencies, rather than real issues discussed by Latinos who went to D.C. and Capitol Hill.
President Obama has one year left in office, and many fear the next president will not be as forgiving. Nonviolent Latina drug offenders like Elisa, Rita, Josephine, and others will more than likely die in prison if President Obama doesn’t commute their sentences. He shouldn’t delay any longer.
Jason Hernandez received a clemency from President Obama in December 2013 after being sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug charge. He was the first Latino to receive clemency from President Obama. He’s since founded Crack Open the Door, a nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform.