Tag Archives: criminal justice

Florida Supreme Court rules against death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row — as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder — was put in limbo by a pair of sweeping rulings issued by the Florida Supreme Court.

In two linked cases — each decided by a 5-2 split — the court ruled that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.

“Requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before death may be imposed … is a critical step toward ensuring that Florida will continue to have a constitutional and viable death penalty law, which is surely the intent of the Legislature,” the court stated in one of two rulings. “This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”

At the same time the court ordered a unanimous jury decision, it also opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

Justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant with a box-cutter in 1998 — deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.

But a majority of justices disagreed, and Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida was one of the few remaining states in the nation that did not require a unanimous jury decision. She said the only way to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound” was to require a unanimous decision.

Justice Charles Canady, in a strong dissenting opinion, contended that the majority went far beyond what was required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that Hurst’s sentence be reduced to life in prison, but they said that because of the new requirement, he deserved to have a jury reconsider his sentence. That decision could lead other death row inmates to ask for the same consideration.

David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that “based on the way that the opinion is written and the reasoning of the Justices, it would appear that all death penalty sentences imposed in Florida require a new sentencing hearing.” Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that, at the least, the 43 inmates whose death penalty cases are still on direct appeal deserve to be resentenced.

The sweeping decision got a muted response from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose offices said they were reviewing it.

Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, said that ongoing murder cases could proceed as long as juries were instructed that a unanimous decision was required. But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, contended it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Legislature acts.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.

Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran blasted the ruling and said it was an ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”

“This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,” said Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state.”

Politics, shootings undercut criminal justice overhaul in Congress

Hopes for overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system have faded in Congress this year, undercut by a rash of summer shootings involving police and the pressure of election-year politics.

Republicans, including Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, had joined forces with Democrats in hopes of revising the 1980s and ’90s-era federal “tough on crime” laws by reducing some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and giving judges greater discretion in sentencing. The goal is to reduce overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and save taxpayer dollars.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

The bipartisan group encountered fierce opposition from some Republicans who argue reform could increase crime and pose a greater danger to law enforcement.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn’t commented on the pending legislation but has dubbed himself the “law-and-order candidate” for what he calls a country in crisis, with terrorism in cities and attacks on police.

With Republicans deeply divided, one man could break the legislative deadlock: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has not indicated whether he supports the effort.

If inaction is telling, McConnell so far has declined to put the legislation to vote, suggesting he doesn’t want a messy intraparty fight before the November election.

Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., strongly supports an overhaul and may bring up a series of bipartisan House bills in September to reduce mandatory sentences and boost rehabilitation programs.

An unusual coalition — President Barack Obama, the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes. Obama has made it a priority in his last year.

But Ryan and Obama have a tough job in winning over McConnell, who must deal with opponents such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a handful of other Senate Republicans.

Supporters are also battling the calendar.

Congress is only in session a few weeks before Obama leaves office.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports the effort, but if she wins it’s unclear whether there would be momentum for the overhaul in her busy first year in office.

Cotton calls the Senate bill “a dangerous experiment in criminal leniency” that would let violent criminals out of prison.

Supporters say the legislation would do the opposite, making communities safer by focusing on rehabilitation and preserving police resources. Mark Holden of Koch Industries, which has backed the Senate and House bills, points to states that have successfully put similar reforms in place.

Proponents argue that there’s no direct connection between the overhaul and this summer’s shootings of black men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge — or the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge — since the measures would primarily deal with incarceration of low-level drug offenders and rehabilitation programs. Opponents counter that reducing mandatory minimum sentences could further endanger law enforcement.

“If you talk to actual officers on the street, almost all of them will tell you their job has gotten more dangerous,” said the Hudson Institute’s John Walters, who was drug czar under President George W. Bush. “The current debate about this isn’t going to give them a voice.”

The House Judiciary Committee is looking at separate action on policing and has created a bipartisan working group on police accountability and aggression toward law enforcement. After meetings in Detroit on Tuesday, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., predicted criminal justice reform will eventually pass.

On policing, Goodlatte said mistrust between law enforcement and the communities will not be solved overnight. “However, this should not deter us from devoting urgent attention to this matter of national importance,” he said.

Republicans who back criminal justice overhaul point to the support of several law enforcement groups and say they are working the party’s grassroots, bringing the message that changes could save billions of federal dollars and help criminals from returning to prison.

“There’s no question that it’s very hard to draw the lines on the conservative movement and where people are on this,” says Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who is working with a group called Right on Crime.

At the heart of the Republican debate on the issue is a philosophical difference between advocates who say rehabilitation and shorter sentences could lower recidivism and opponents who say it will let criminals out and not do enough to stem crime. Advocates point to a dip in overall crime in the U.S., while opponents point to rising crime in some major cities.

The Senate bill was introduced last October, and Cornyn and other supporters revised it this spring to try and win over reluctant GOP colleagues. But Cornyn acknowledged in July that the House would have to move first on its legislation, which is similar but not identical to the Senate bill.

Some advocates are hoping the legislation could be passed as part of the typical last-minute horse-trading in the “lame duck” session in between the election and the end of the year.

To get momentum, “we need a House vote in September, and we need a big House vote in September,” says Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network.

Congressional conservatives threaten criminal justice reform

A handful of Senate Republicans have dealt a severe blow to prospects for overhauling the criminal justice system in Congress this year, with one lawmaker calling the bipartisan legislation championed by President Barack Obama and some prominent conservatives “a massive social experiment in criminal leniency.” 

The opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and others will make it difficult for proponents to push the bill as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., assesses GOP support. Backed by the White House and a coalition of conservatives and liberals, supporters had hoped it would be a rare legislative accomplishment in a fiercely partisan election year and a final piece of Obama’s legacy.

At an event for congressional staff, Cotton and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., joined a group of federal prosecutors and argued against the bill, which would allow judges to reduce prison time for some drug offenders. The two senators — along with Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and David Perdue, R-Ga. — also issued statements of opposition.

Cotton later stood on the Senate floor, warning his colleagues that they would be held accountable if criminals were released and committed more crimes.

“If supporters of this bill and President Obama are wrong, if this grand experiment in criminal leniency goes awry, how many lives will be ruined?” Cotton asked. “How many dead? How much of the anti-crime progress of the last generation will be wiped away for the next?”

The bipartisan legislation, passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in November, would give judges discretion to give lesser sentences than federal mandatory minimums, eliminating mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders. It also would create programs to help prisoners successfully re-enter society. The idea is to make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Disparate voices — from Obama and the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries — have said the system is broken and have backed the Senate bill.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

Supporters of the bill are considering some changes to win over opponents, even though they sharply dispute the charge that the legislation would let violent criminals out of prison. Under the Senate bill, each case would be reviewed by a judge before the prison sentence was reduced.

Possible changes include revising or eliminating parts of the bill that would allow judges to consider reduced mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders or criminals who had possessed a firearm.

“How those changes will look is still being determined, but we’re moving ahead to get a bill ready to be considered on the Senate floor,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement early this week with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, another supporter.

Cotton said he has been talking to staff as they look at changes, but still believes the legislation is based on a “false premise” that those who would be released are low-level, nonviolent offenders. Cotton and others have been more supportive of the prison reform piece of the bill that helps prisoners re-enter society.

The Arkansas senator is talking to Senate colleagues individually as advocates rally McConnell to move the bill this year. Cotton’s lobbying pits him against Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. Cornyn has been pressing his colleagues to support it, saying that opposition from Cotton and other conservatives like Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has similar concerns, is misplaced.

As conservative opposition has grown, Cornyn and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have said the legislation doesn’t have to move this year. Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said the legislation is a priority, but hasn’t committed to a timeline.

The House Judiciary Committee has approved several separate criminal justice bills, with the eventual goal of moving them separately or together on the House floor. 

Young lawyers launch legal clinic to help Milwaukee’s homeless youth

The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Young Lawyers Division recently announced an initiative providing legal aid to Milwaukee’s homeless youth, offering a series of free legal clinics throughout February.

“There is a significant homeless youth population in Milwaukee, many of whom are facing legal issues, and we, as young lawyers are uniquely positioned to make a connection and do our small part to make a difference in our community,” said Elise Libbey, a Milwaukee attorney and chair of the State Bar’s Project Street Youth program. “It is important that we take steps to help where we are able.”

The legal clinics are part of a larger national program, Project Street Youth, which was created by the American Bar Association’s YLD to educate and raise awareness of the issues facing homeless youth, as well as to direct lawyers to lobby for policy changes and new legislation.

According to the ABA, about 40 percent of the more than 1.7 million homeless young people in the United States are under the age of 18.

“This is a unique opportunity for lawyers to provide an underserved population with much needed services that may not be readily available to them,” Libbey said.

YLD organizers anticipate the clinics will address a host of legal issues, including credit and false accusations of fraud, the ability to find housing, expungements of criminal records, public assistance.

The legal clinics are scheduled for Feb. 3, Feb. 10, Feb. 17 and Feb. 24 5:30-8 p.m. at Pathfinders in Milwaukee.

“We are fortunate to partner with Pathfinders for our legal clinics,” Libbey said. “It’s a great organization doing great work for Milwaukee’s at-risk youth population.”

As of today, more than 30 volunteer attorneys have committed to collectively provide more than 120 hours of free legal advice over the course of the four clinics.

If the Milwaukee clinics are successful, the YLD board will consider expanding the program to other areas of the state, according to a news release.

In 2016 campaigns, both parties want reform of justice system

On the campaign trail, among candidates of both parties, the idea of locking up drug criminals for life is a lot less popular than it was a generation ago.

The 2016 presidential race has accelerated an evolution away from the traditional tough-on-crime candidate. A Republican Party that’s long taken a law-and-order stance finds itself desperate to improve its standing among minority voters, and Democratic candidates are also being drawn into national conversations on policing, drug crimes and prison costs.

With criminal justice issues intruding into election season, the “Just Say No” message of the Reagan administration and the “three strikes” sentencing law developed a decade later under President Bill Clinton have given way to concerns over bloated prison costs, the racial inequities of harsh drug punishments and how police interact with their communities.

But even among those in both parties who support changing the criminal justice system, there’s no consensus on how to do it and candidates are scrambling to differentiate themselves on what law and order means.

“You don’t have everyone saying they’re tough on crime,” said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which advocates reducing prison populations. “Instead, you have people offering different policy solutions.”

The Paris attacks have at least temporarily thrust national security to the forefront of the presidential race, but criminal justice issues have been periodically popping up, particularly among Democrats, in a year of tumult in U.S. cities. In the Republican field, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been out front in seeking to “break the cycle of incarceration for non-violent ex-offenders.”

The push to rethink sentences for drug offenders is coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement and its debate about police treatment of minorities, a heroin crisis that’s brought renewed attention to addiction and a homicide spike in some big cities. Sometimes that mix of issues defies consistency.

Republican Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and a former federal prosecutor, has preached treatment rather than prison for drug addicts and spoken sympathetically of a law school friend who died after getting hooked on painkillers. But when it comes to discussing policing, he accuses Democrats in Washington of “allowing lawlessness to reign” and tells law enforcement “I’ll have your back,” suggesting that the Obama administration doesn’t.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Republican, criticizes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But last month he voted against legislation that would have made nonviolent drug offenders eligible for shorter prison sentences, saying he was concerned it could also benefit violent felons.

And while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has endorsed a review of the criminal code and decried “selective enforcement” of the law, he wrote in an essay for a Brennan Center book this year that drug laws had helped restore “law and order to America’s cities” and that shorter drug-crime sentences should be approached with caution.

Support for more lenient sentencing from Republican members of Congress and wealthy conservative backers such as the Koch brothers has made it easier for budget-minded presidential candidates to support sentencing policy changes. It’s not clear, though, how much benefit candidates gain from pressing the issue with average voters, said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Some leading candidates such as Donald Trump hardly mention the issue on the campaign trail, and Ben Carson, the sole Republican participant in a recent candidate forum on criminal justice, said he was still waiting to see evidence of racial bias by police.

“The Republican primary voters are not a soft-hearted bunch when it comes to criminal justice issues, and I don’t think there are a lot of voters to be had,” Cullen said.

Democratic candidates are more unified in their embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and of overall change to the criminal justice system.

After Baltimore’s riots in April, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner whose husband promoted a more conventional tough-on-crime stance, called the criminal justice system “out of balance” and urged an end to “mass incarceration.” More recently, she proposed lifting restrictions on getting marijuana for medical studies and said it should be reclassified by the government to allow federally sponsored research into its effects.

Her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has called for accountability for police officers who “kill people who are unarmed” and suggested moving forward with marijuana legalization.

It’s all a big change from a generation or two ago.

“The threat of someone waging a ‘tough on crime’ campaign as their calling card is, I think, very much diminished from what we might have seen 20 years ago,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates sentencing policy changes.

The “reform movement” has strong enough support, Mauer said, that it would be “difficult for a candidate to try to make hay out of it.”

It’s not clear how rising homicide rates in some cities will affect efforts to remake the criminal justice system, especially since there’s no consensus about what’s caused the trend or whether it will last. FBI Director James Comey said recently that if the trend were to continue, “we will be back to talking about how law enforcement needs to help rescue black neighborhoods from the grip of violence.”

“All lives matter too much for us to let that happen,” he said.

It also remains to be seen how campaign-trail rhetoric will translate into policy or how committed a future president will be in pushing for sentencing changes. But issues of criminal justice that in many ways were once considered local concerns are, at least for now, in play on the national level.

GOP obstructionists strangling the justice system

Due to partisan gridlock, millions of Americans are not getting their day in court. Political gamesmanship has stalled the nation’s judicial system to such an extent that U.S. citizens can no longer count on their constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.

The United States currently has the largest backlog of federal criminal and civil cases in American history, according to a recent article that appeared in the congressional publication Roll Call. Since Republicans took control of the Senate in January, the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has tripled to more than 80 — and 30 of them are considered emergencies, according to authors Anisha Singh and Pete Haviland-Eduah. (Singh is with the Center for American Progress, Haviland-Eduah is a masters candidate at the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy at the University of Michigan.)

The two writers say the Senate is on track this year to confirm the fewest judicial nominees since 1953. The situation is more critical in some states than in others. In Pennsylvania, where there are seven judicial vacancies, the average felony trial takes more than a year.

The blame, of course, lies at the doorstep of Republican Senate obstructionists. Senators who belong to the GOP’s extremist tea party faction have predicated their agendas on thwarting President Barack Obama at every turn. Their favored method is refusing to approve his nominees, especially his judicial and ambassadorial nominees. They don’t seem to care that such childishness hurts the nation.

GOP senators who once took their positions seriously are now falling in line behind the extremists. They’re so afraid of taking a vote that could be seen as cooperating with Obama that they’ve given the inmates charge of the asylum to avoid a political challenge from their right flank the next time they’re up for re-election. Holding on to their jobs has taken precedence over doing their jobs.

To be fair, previous senates, including Democrat-controlled senates, have played the same game, but never so conspicuously and at such magnitude. Society is suffering a level of harm from judicial obstructionism today that’s likely unprecedented. Increasing wait times for defendants — including, of course, innocent defendants — translates into exponentially higher legal fees and irreparable life disruptions, such as lost incomes, jobs and families. Extended wait times force innocent people to languish in jail for longer periods. The situation is particularly acute for prisoners awaiting appeals, since appeals courts have been hit the hardest by the Senate’s failure to act.

The nation’s criminal justice system is already broken. As WiG reported Sept. 10 in the story “Wisconsin’s criminal justice policies trap people of color in prison system,” sentencing for non-violent offenses is ridiculously harsh and unequally applied, racial profiling by police is rampant, prisons are overcrowded and self-perpetuating, and parole almost invariably leads back to jail.
Meanwhile, the courts have lost the trust of the people. They’re so transparently partisan that the outcomes of cases can be accurately predicted by considering who appointed the presiding judges — or, in Wisconsin, who paid for their elections.

Now, on top of all that, petulant GOP senators are holding the system hostage with their petty, kindergarten behavior.

Voters should insist their representatives take care of the nation’s business, not hold it back out of spite. That’s what voters are paying for with their taxes. But, unfortunately for America, it’s the voters who are ultimately responsible for the Senate’s reckless behavior. Too many voters insist on it in the name of ideological purity. And too many others simply aren’t paying attention or considering the repercussions of so many unfilled benches — at least not until the situation affects them.

Republicans contend that government should emulate the virtues of the free market. But what company would retain senior-level managers who blatantly refused to perform their jobs out of spite?

Senators reach deal on criminal justice overhaul

A bipartisan group of senators has reached a long-sought agreement on changes to the criminal justice system that would reduce prison sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.

In the deal struck between some of the Senate’s most conservative and liberal members, judges would have the discretion to give sentences below the mandatory minimum for non-violent drug offenders. Some current inmates could get their sentences reduced by as much as 25 percent by taking part in rehabilitation programs, if they are deemed a low risk to offend again.

The bill would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, non-violent offenders.

The bill was unveiled yesterday. It would exclude violent offenders, sex offenders and inmates convicted of terrorism charges. Members of organized crime syndicates and major fraud offenders would also be excluded.

The package, which was years in the making, should have momentum in the Senate. It was negotiated by some of the most powerful senators.

The White House hasn’t commented on the bill. But in July, President Barack Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison while in office. He called for changes in the criminal justice system, saying a distinction had to be made between young people doing “stupid things” and violent criminals.

Among the senators’ goals: make the sentencing system fairer, reduce recidivism and contain rising prison costs.

Since 1980, the federal prison population has exploded, in part because of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

“My childhood was spent hearing, ‘Just say no to drugs,’ and look, the thought behind that movement had merit,” said Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network. “But unfortunately, we went too far.”

Harris, whose group has been pushing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, said she was encouraged by how broad the proposal is. She said the political climate has changed dramatically from the 1980s and ’90s, when many politicians were afraid to appear weak on crime.

“In my book, this isn’t a tough vote,” Harris said. “People are educated on this and they want these reforms.”

Among the Republican backers of the bill: Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate; Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Mike Lee of Utah; and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is running a longshot campaign for president.

Among the Democrats: Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate; Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island; and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The bill would require all eligible inmates to undergo regular assessments to determine the likelihood of committing another crime. It would not authorize any new spending. But it would encourage inmates to take part in rehabilitation programs and other productive activities, such as working prison jobs.

Inmates deemed to be a low risk for a repeat offense could get their prison sentences shortened by 10 days for every 30 days they participate in a rehabilitation program. These inmates could serve the last part of their sentences in community-based programs in which they would be supervised by authorities.

The bill would reduce enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders. However, the penalties would still be applied to offenders with prior convictions for violent and serious drug felonies.

Obama commutes sentences, seeks fairer system

President Barack Obama is pushing for bipartisan action to change the criminal justice system in ways that go far beyond the limited executive powers that he’s used to reduce harsh prison sentences for dozens of non-violent offenders.

In a recent speech to the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia, the president called for legislative action to reduce unduly harsh sentences, eliminate disparities in the way justice is applied and lessen taxpayer costs to house prisoners.

“We’re at a moment when some good people in both parties — Republicans and Democrats — and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better,” Obama said. “There’s a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system,” he added in a video released by the White House. 

Obama commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, 14 of whom had been sentenced to life, including Wisconsinite Stephen Donovan.

The 58-year-old Donovan, of Oak Creek, was convicted in 1992 for conspiring to deliver cocaine purchased through a network with connections in Florida and Chicago. Under new sentencing rules in the War on Drugs era, he was given a life sentence without parole. He filed two appeals — one in 1994 and another in 1996 — and then a petition for clemency.

Donovan’s attorney, Robert Dvorak of Milwaukee, is involved with the Clemency Project, which has organized 1,500 volunteer lawyers to help advocate for thousands of prisoners.

“It’s heartening to see President Obama using his constitutional clemency powers for the good of non-violent federal prisoners who received excessively long sentences,” said Cynthia Roseberry, director of the project.

Yet, she continued, “many non-violent prisoners are still serving unduly harsh prison terms based on repudiated laws and policies. That means we have quite a lot of work ahead, as do the offices of the pardon attorney, the deputy attorney general and the White House.”

While some Republicans in Congress are showing new interest in criminal justice legislation, not all GOP legislators saw the president’s commutations as a positive step.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who has proposed bipartisan legislation, accused the president of issuing commutations as a politically motivated stunt.

“Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform,” Sensenbrenner said.

Since Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group seeking sentencing changes.

And the costs, Obama says, are over $80 billion a year to incarcerate people who often “have only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses.”

“Congress simply can’t act fast enough,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM. She said that while Obama’s executive actions have picked off some of the most egregious sentencing inequities, significant legislative action is needed to stop the flow of people “going to prison year in and year out, serving too much time.”

Support from tough-on-crime Republicans in any such effort is critical, Stewart said.

Todd Cox, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, said there is momentum from both ends of the political spectrum to address the over-criminalization that has “resulted in people being put in prison who frankly shouldn’t be there.”

His group is part of the Coalition for Public Safety, whose members and backers range from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch brothers.

In recent years, as the crime rate has dropped, long drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny and downward trends already are appearing.

The Supreme Court has made sentencing guideline ranges advisory rather than mandatory. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut penalties for crack cocaine offenses. And last year, the independent Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing policy, reduced guideline ranges for drug crimes and applied those retroactively.

Overall, Obama has commuted the sentences of 89 people, surpassing the combined number of commutations granted by the previous four presidents. But that’s still a sliver of all those seeking clemency: Justice Department statistics show that roughly 2,100 commutation petitions have been received so far this fiscal year and about 7,900 are pending.