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Face of the American Freedom Initiative's National Pardon Project: Charles Tanner

FreedomWorks recently announced the launch of the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.

Charles “Duke” Tanner seemed to have everything going for him at age 24, as an up-and-coming boxer with a 19-0 record and a potential title bout on the way. Unfortunately, along the way he and his brother become involved with a cocaine smuggling ring in their native Gary, Indiana. In 2004, Charles was arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute large quantities of cocaine and marijuana.

Tanner acknowledges his involvement with the drug ring and the terrible impact it had on his community and region (the ring distributed across the Midwest). However, he and his brother were accused of being the kingpins of the operation based on the testimony of other gang members entered as part of a plea deal. In addition, prosecutors added in weapons charges because there were guns at Tanner’s home, even though he didn’t even have one on him when he was busted by undercover officers. This was under a legal guideline that the guns constituted “tools of the trade” for someone involved in drug distribution.

Thus, as a first-time, non-violent offender, upon being convicted Tanner was handed two life sentences. With no parole system for federal prisoners, Tanner faced the prospect of spending bleak decades incarcerated before dying in prison alongside the likes of murderers and rapists.

In spite of this, Tanner has dedicated the 16 years that he has spent behind bars thus far working to better himself and others. Aside from completing countless hours of rehabilitation programs and vocational skills training, he has been a tremendously active mentor to other prisoners. Tanner also did the best he could to stay involved as a father and mentor to his son (also Charles), who was only two years old at the time of his arrest.

Besides demonstrating recognizance for his crimes, Charles has been noted for his deep faith and relentless positivity, which he has passed along to many of his fellow inmates. Tanner has attracted widespread support for his clemency, including from two mayors of Gary, Indiana, one of whom was formerly Indiana’s state Attorney General. Amy Ralston Povah, president of the CAN-DO Foundation, which is a leading advocate for providing relief for overly harsh criminal sentences, wrote that “Charles is one of the most deserving clemency candidates I've had the honor of advocating for during the 20 years that I have been working in the clemency space. He is humble, articulate, devoted to his family and rehabilitation; a true champion who made a mistake and deserves a second chance.”

Charles got some relief in 2016, when a retroactive Drugs Minus Two sentence adjustment cut his life sentence down to 30 years. However, this still places his earliest release date at 2030, when he would be 50 years old. His clemency petition to President Obama was rejected in 2017, and a petition to President Trump is ongoing. Although the First Step Act has provided another possible angle for rehabilitated federal prisoners to escape the lack of a federal parole system via appealing to a judge for compassionate release,Tanner’s best hope remains presidential action.

Although exceptional federal inmates like Charles Tanner manage to keep positive in the face of a decades-long prison sentence, cases like his also highlight the need for a formal federal parole system. A system with earned-time incentives towards earlier release, based on continuous good behavior and participation in skills and rehabilitation programs would provide a positive incentive for even more prisoners to follow Tanner’s path to redemption.