Every man deserves his day in court. In this country, we are presumed innocent until proven guilty, right? And once a verdict is rendered by a jury of our peers, our fate is then in the hands of the presiding judge at sentencing--well, at least it is supposed to be. In the case of Evans Ray, his third drug conviction drew a sentence of life in prison plus 10 years—all because of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Had it not been for organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and a president who understands the problems with mandatory minimums, Ray would have died in prison. He had previously received two low-level drug-related convictions when a third in 2004 for distributing 60g of crack cocaine sealed his fate.
Even the judge who presided over his case believed that a life sentence was a "cruel and unusual punishment" and attempted to give him 324 months instead. He failed and Ray was certain to spend the rest of his days locked behind bars.
Ray shared his initial reaction saying, "That was a death sentence. I was good in the daytime on the compounds where I was incarcerated, when you get to go to the law library, rec yard, go eat, be around people. But when they lock that door at 8:45 and you’re locked in your cell, you can feel that life sentence eating through you and killing you," Ray told The Root. "You know that you’re going to die in prison."
Fortunately, Obama aggressively utilized his power of clemency and commuted 1,715 prison sentences during his eight years in office. He was on a mission to correct what he saw as systemic injustices against low-level, nonviolent, and first-time offenders--mostly people of color. Mary Price, general counsel for FAMM, told The Root that mandatory minimums leave no room for considering the special circumstances of each case:
"Mandatory minimums blur the distinction dramatically in terms of culpability and just in terms of individual justice. What they mean is that judges cannot waive the mandatory minimum and take account of a person’s actual conduct, actual role, any kind of mitigating factors such as terrible upbringing," she added. "It means that judges don’t get to impose the sentence; rather, members of Congress do when they establish the mandatory minimum."
Once Ray realized that he was eligible for clemency, he asked District Judge Alexander Williams, Jr., to write Obama a letter on his behalf as this judge had refused to impose the life sentence on him previously. Ray even made a personal appeal of his own. And it worked. In July 2016, the president wrote him back saying among other things that, "I believe that all people, including those who have made mistakes—even significant mistakes—have the capacity to make the right choices and to have a positive impact on others."
Less than one month later, Ray got the news that he would be freed after serving 12 years in prison. He was able to enjoy Halloween with his family, taking his grandchild trick-or-treating, and spending time with his family. But, Ray feels a duty to help those who were not as fortunate as he was to get a second chance.
"I have to be an advocate for the guys that I left behind. I have a passion for speaking and helping people, and I can’t forget those good men that have unfair sentences like mine,” he said. “And there are some good people in prison. Everybody’s not blackhearted."
Ray hopes to start a nonprofit which focuses on helping others who have been granted clemency reenter society. He is currently working for Community Empowerment Leadership Academy which provides job training, mentoring, and other services to inner-city youth in the Washington, D.C. area.
Hopefully, his story will be a catalyst for change in the fight against mandatory minimums. No one is arguing against accountability. The punishment must fit the crime. Anything else is just another act of injustice.