On Tuesday, August 30th 2016, President Barack Obama granted 111 commutations to federal inmates.
This brings his total commutations for the month of August to 325, and the total overall for his Presidency to 673. According to WhiteHouse.gov, this is more commutations than were granted by the ten previous presidents combined. Over one third of the inmates in question were serving life sentences. One of the federal inmates granted clemency on Tuesday, a man named Timothy Tyler, was serving a double-life sentence without the possibility of parole for selling LSD.
Tyler was convicted in 1994 for selling LSD and cannabis to a police informant. At the time of his arrest in 1992, he was on his way to see the Grateful Dead in California. He had mailed 13,000 hits of LSD in an envelope to the informant in Florida. Though Tyler only sold 5.2 grams of the drug, authorities factored in the weight of the blotter paper. This brought the total weight up to 10 grams–a felony amount. Tyler had two previous drug convictions, for which he had served probation, but the third offense earned him his life sentence under a new federal “three strikes” law.
Federal mandatory minimum sentences require federal judges to set a certain minimum prison sentence for a given crime, regardless of the unique circumstances in the case at hand. Even if the judge wants to give a lower sentence, they must give the mandatory minimum. The “three strikes” provision under which Tyler was convicted was enacted by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This provision requires “mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes”.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Congress first applied mandatory minimums to drug-related crimes in 1951 and again in 1956, but in 1970 it repealed nearly all mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Mandatory minimums were reinstated in 1986 via the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The Act differentiated between “serious” and “major” drug traffickers by mandating 5-year and 10-year minimum sentences for them, respectively. It also determined sentences by differentiating between different quantities of drugs and even different forms of the same drug. A certain amount of crack cocaine, for example, would result in harsher penalties than the same amount of powder cocaine.
The USSC reports that the law was passed quickly to address what was seen as a severe public crisis over drugs: “Congress bypassed much of its usual deliberative legislative process. As a result, [they] held no committee hearings and produced no reports related to the 1986 Act.” The 1988 Omnibus Anti-Abuse Act expanded these mandatory penalties and imposed them for a greater range of offenses, including conspiracy to commit a drug trafficking offense. This was one of the offenses for which Tyler himself was convicted.
Tyler’s father was also implicated for helping his own friend procure LSD through his son. Tyler rejected a plea deal—which would have reduced his sentence to 10 years—because he refused to testify against his father. His father was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison for a cannabis charge. He died in 2001 before he had completed his term. Tyler ended up pleading guilty to his charges, because his public defender failed to fully explain the federal mandatory minimum guidelines. These guidelines prevented the judge from factoring Tyler’s age, mental condition, drug use, or nonviolent history into the punishment. By the time Tyler learned the truth, it was too late to take back his guilty plea. He was given a double life-sentence.
Tyler, who has a history of psychosis and bipolar disorder, was often kept in solitary confinement, which exacerbated his mental state. He was prevented even from listening to music for most of his sentence. Groups that lobbied for his release included Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the ACLU, and the Clemency Project, while a Change.org petition urging his release garnered over 420,000 signatures. Despite his commutation by President Obama, Tyler will not be released from prison until August 2018, and only then on the condition that he enter a drug treatment program.