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#FreeHer Campaign Wants Clemency For 100 Women In Biden's First 100 Days

A sign points toward the women's section of the Huntington Beach jail. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is appealing to President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women during his first 100 days in office.
Jeff Gritchen
Orange County Register via Getty Images
A sign points toward the women's section of the Huntington Beach jail. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is appealing to President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women during his first 100 days in office.

More than 200,000 women and girls are incarcerated in this country — 10,000 of them in federal prisons — and Danielle Metz used to be one of them.

Metz was married to an alleged drug kingpin and had two small children, 3 and 7 years old, when she was sentenced in 1993 for drug conspiracy and money laundering convictions. She had never been in legal trouble before, "not even a traffic ticket," she says. "I was sentenced to three life sentences and when I came in the system they didn't have parole or anything like that anymore. So I was just doing time day for day. The process was really hard. My family didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted my appeals. Clemency was my only hope."

Nothing came of Metz's first clemency petition, however things started to change when prosecutors wrote a letter to the Office of the Pardon Attorney on her behalf. In August 2016, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.

"That was after 23 years and 8 months of serving," Metz says.

The U.S. Constitution gives the president power to grant clemency for a person who committed a federal crime. Typically that's either a commutation, which reduces a person's sentence, or a pardon, which absolves them of a crime. Metz works now with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. As part of a clemency campaign, the group is asking President Biden to grant clemency to 100 women during his first 100 days in office.

The Council's founder and executive director Andrea James says draconian penalties and mandatory minimum sentences that escalated the country's "war on drugs" including the 1994 crime bill and the government's increased use of drug conspiracy charges swept up too many people who had marginal if any roles in drug trafficking.

"When I was in federal prison, there were women that were there for conspiracy who never touched a drug, they didn't see a drug," says James, who was incarcerated for two years on a wire fraud conviction. "If you took conspiracy out of the equation, you could not justify these women sitting in prison for 10, 15, 20, 25 years and life without parole sentences and it's just absolutely heartbreaking."

During his days in the U.S. Senate, Biden authored or supported many of the tough on crime bills that critics say have had a disparate impact on Black neighborhoods and increased the prison population. He has since offered criminal justice reforms that counter some of the earlier legislation. James and the National Council say the president should continue righting wrongs by granting the clemency requests of the 100 women they believe should be released.

The group's primary focus is on the elderly and women serving life without parole for drug cases.

"The second category are women who are sick," James says. "They have chronic or terminal illness and they are in prison during COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Justice publishes clemency statistics going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt in the 1900s. The numbers from recent years show President George W. Bush pardoned 189 people and commuted 11 sentences. Obama, who encouraged people to file petitions during his administration's clemency initiative, granted 212 pardons and commuted the sentences of 1,715 people. President Donald Trump, who largely bypassed the traditional Justice Department process for some of his clemency decisions, granted 143 pardons and commuted 94 sentences during his presidency. The Justice Department also shows, at last count, nearly 400 clemency petitions asking for President Biden to pardon or commute sentences have been filed.

Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and an expert on clemency, says there's certainly a need to grant thousands of clemency petitions. The problem she says is that the system is broken with no transparency about how requests are handled.

"It's a black box," Barkow says, "so there's no telling where those 100 women would fit in the clemency process or the Biden administration's priorities."

As part of Obama's clemency initiative, Barkow co-founded a clemency resource center that obtained commutations for 96 people. However, Barkow says the Obama initiative is also, in part, the reason why there is a 14,000 person clemency backlog since a deluge of women and men — more than 36,000 — filed clemency petitions during that time. And that backlog grew during the Trump administration.

Also at fault says Barkow is the slow, bureaucratic process of how clemency applications are approved or denied. It's a procedure that begins at the U.S. Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. Barkow says its long past due to take the process out of the Justice Department and to let an independent body review clemency petitions and make recommendations to the president.

"It just does not make sense to ask prosecutors to make these decisions. There's a bias there," Barkow says. "The prosecutor who looks at is really focused on the initial crime and what the person did, but clemency is so much more about who that person is today."

So as the countdown on President Biden's first 100 days continues, incarcerated women, their families and supporters say they will continue to implore the president to grant 100 women clemency over the next few months. They will also urge him to ignore the presidential practice of offering clemency as a gift near the end of a term in office.

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Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.