The Power of a Second Chance

President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance.

President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.

I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.

President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.

We over-incarcerate and over-punish, and essentially throw away the key. The research time and again has shown that not only do people age out of criminality, their continued incarceration costs society a fortune, while making our communities no safer. It is only when we begin reforming our appetite for long sentences that we will truly make a dent in this problem.

I am thinking of people like William Underwood, a 61-year-old grandfather who has spent nearly 27 years behind bars, serving a life sentence. He was pegged as a gang leader, and convicted on serious conspiracy and drug charges. But it was his first and only felony conviction. The laws he was convicted under have changed, and so has he. Any tie he had to any type of criminal activity is buried in the distant past. And he has professed deep regret for his youthful misdeeds.

Underwood’s clean institutional record, remorse for poor choices, and determination to maintain strong bonds with his family have helped him attract a groundswell of diverse supporters calling for his release. His children and friends have been joined by national civil rights leaders, professionals in the music and entertainment businesses, scholars, and formerly incarcerated mentees in urging the president to commute his sentence.

Conservative leader Pat Nolan wrote, “Prison is for people we are afraid of, not those we are merely mad at. We are mad at Mr. Underwood because he sold drugs. But at age 61, we are not afraid of him.” Even representatives of the conservative Koch Brothers have met with his children and expressed support for his release. (I represent Mr. Underwood pro bono.)

The outpouring of support for Underwood in his commutation petition is a stark reflection of the injustice of his situation: no matter how long he lives, no matter how much his life has changed, no matter what steps he has taken to better himself, no matter how many laws have changed, he can never, ever leave prison alive. Such a sentence, devoid of hope and compassion, is inhumane and akin to a living death. As the actress Maria McDonald, founder of Cover Girls for Change, wrote in calling for his release, “When does punishment become abuse? When does abuse become inhumane and holocaustic? When is enough enough?” 

President Obama offered a powerful answer to that question with his third set of commutations on Monday. “I believe at its heart America is a nation of second chances,” he said. As such, I urge our president as he carefully considers more petitions for clemency to take a hard look at all the William Underwoods languishing behind bars, who may have made serious mistakes in the past but have long since changed their lives and want to rejoin their families and communities. They, too, deserve mercy and compassion. They, too, deserve a second chance.

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I pray for the families of the folks that are still in

For non-violent drug offences there must be clinical treatment for de-addiction, social re habitation, supervision, seeking their co-operation for preventing drug trafficking and retail . Such favours need not be and never to be extended to religious extremism and brutality as they are trying to reserve a comfortable seat
in 'Heaven',by killing innocents -even if let free they will repeat it! this is intolerance to intolerance .

Excellent article. Critical issue. When is enough, enough?

i am disappointed that only 4 of the recently 47 released nonviolent offenders were women.

me 2

I am pretty much a veteran of marketing and promotion stints for Motown,Island, Scepter-Wand, Warner Bros. and other notable music industry giants. I didn't know Bill Underwood well, but certainly remember seeing him off and on at local NYC radio stations. He was always affable and polite.
I'm certainly not a judge nor a jury, for that matter, but I would think that the crimes(s) committed, the time served and the restitution rendered would conjoin for a more than plausible determinant for his release from his incarceration

27 years is more than sufficient for the crime
Jails should not be a business. Financial game from this tragedy only investor. We need social solutions to crimes

Oscar Lopez Rivera has been a political prisoner for 34 years. He hasn’t hurt anyone; he struggled for Puerto Rican independence. He’s there because the US Govertnment is mad at him, or maybe they are afraid of him for being a symbol of the hypocricy of American “democracy..\"

Racism, despite there being a two-term black President in office, still runs strong in the adjudication of a lot of these nonviolent drug crimes. And most poor drug addicts of any race sell drugs to support their habits. Rehabilitation needs to replace incarceration.

Not only sentences, criminal records must be erased to allow those who were wrongfully convicted for drug offences involving nothing more than alleged conspiracies, whi ch is the easiest way to convict for prosecutors with cocky carrier choices, and had served their sentences to be free from blame, prejudices and abuse.

It is inspiring to know that there are people who put themselves in the line, fighting for social justice and a fair system.

I wholeheartedly support the efforts to commute the sentence of any prisoner still incarcerated by these cruel laws who petitions for clemency. Obama did the right thing for the prisoners recently pardoned but there are so many more who deserve the same treatment.

yes I agree I think that If you have been in there and haven't been in any trouble whether your crime is volient or non my son is in there first time offense, robbery him and his co-defender from different city,DA said we will sat example of you guys in our city, he received 27yrs been in there for 10yrs now was only 18yrs old this was too much time for a 1st time offense anyone that can help me please contact me @ [email protected]

When will President Obama and other politicians realize there are thousands (843,260 per the NCMEC) of registrants in America? One-third of which are now registrants for juvenile-on-juvenile offenses and even though academics advise their brains were not fully developed when they committed this one-time offense which has literally ruined their lives. Also, there are thousands of registrants on this list for A ONE-TIME offense with NO PRIOR convictions whose lives are now in the tank as well as those SERVING TIME either in prison or on a lifetime registry for non-contact and non-violent offense?

I am delighted that many of those with drug offense are being allowed their long-overdue freedom and its it now time to focus some reform efforts on registered s*x offenders even though that is a very unpopular political topic but has become absurd and as studies indicate these measures have not diminished the recidivism rate because it had already begin to drop in 1992.
Vicki Henry, Women Against Registry

I commend ur organisation for their work.I do know that ur scope of coverage is vast. I suggest you turn your beem light to Nigeria. The criminal justice system here is very poor Police harrasssment. Illegal detention,extra judicial killing by Police.long stay in courts,non protection of witnesses in court leading to difficulty in witness production. Our prisons are conjested. So many things are wrong here Nkechi.

Drugtaking is an illness not necessarily criminal activity. Say it loud.

We are heartened and uplifted by President Obama's proactive efforts in this area, his unprecedented act of going to a prison and actually speaking out on behalf of those imprisoned who clearly should not be there. We hope and will help support him to make his words reality.

I hope Mr. Underwood receives clemency and can be reunited with his family.

There is nothing to be gained from prolonging Mr. Underwood's sentence. And much to be gained from his release. The harsh sentences imposed during the era when he was convicted have kept him from his loved ones for 27 years. I believe he has served his time in our unjust Criminal Justice system. It is best for him, his family and our society that he is released.

I hope Obama will do the right thing here.

I fully support clemency for Mr. Underwood as well as countless others wrongfully serving unjust prison terms

As Americans we should use our better judgement to discern right from wrong. It is right to release William Underwood and any other person who is serving very long sentences and LIFE sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It is wrong to allow these people to serve no purpose within our society. These type of punishments should reflect the shadow of our worse citizens in our country; clearly these people are not it. If we tout ourselves as a leading country, we must lead by modern and logical examples and it is clear, we have work to do!!! Btw, it is not uncommon to know of or have someone in your family who is serving a LIFE sentence for a non-violent offense (drug). I happen to have a family member who is serving LIFE plus 20 years, never been to prison!

William Underwood along with others who are serving a LIFE sentence for a non-violent drug offense is a classic example for "justice reform"!!!

Justice is tied to education and employment:


Much of this is dictated by state law but there are some things we can do.

Begin eliminating the bail bond system. Non-violent offenders should not be jailed but rather sent home with an ankle monitoring bracelet before a hearing.

Substance abusers and the mentally should be given SUPPORTIVE treatment (in community or in another appropriate location) NOT JAIL

We must return educational and other training opportunities to prisons.


Children should start learning Spanish in grade1 (most jobs say “knowledge of Spanish a plus”) so that they have an equal chance at future employment.

Stop pretending everyone is going—or should go—to college. Summer internships should be available for youth starting with grade 9 as preparation for skilled trades or profession (tailored to the student’s academic or work goal—including running a business-- if known.) By the beginning to 11th grade—if not earlier—each student should have some idea(s) about their education or work goal(s).

Teach economic and personal finance literacy, as well as environmental literacy.

Rec centers (should be located in parts of schools like Balto. County) should engage kids in IT, software development and game design, robotics (via Lego clubs) art, music, drama. This would strengthen reading and math skills while providing practical application. Soccer, tennis and lacrosse should be added to sports offered to provide students with a wider range of athletic opportunities—as well as scholarship possibilities. Also many in Baltimore’s new immigrant community are soccer players.


Opportunities for post-secondary education MUST include preparation for jobs that do exist, especially in professions that have the potential for longtime grown and steady employment—and do it in a way that KEEPS MONEY IN THE COMMUNITY when at all possible. Internships and apprenticeships must be made available. Emphasis should be placed on the following growing areas: IT, software development, robotics, solar panel installation, maintenance and repair; wind turbine installation, maintenance and repair; HVAC; mechanical, electrical and biomedical engineering; construction trades; landscape design an maintenance; geriatric care; health care (nursing home) management; nursing; geriatric home aides; physical and occupational therapy.

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