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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.
The case for Paulette Martin’s clemency is a difficult one in light of the crimes she committed. Along with a number of others, Martin was sentenced to life in prison in 2006, for playing a major role in a network that distributed cocaine, crack, and heroin in Maryland. Her guilt is not in doubt, and she is very clearly the sort of high-level drug offender for whom long prison sentences are intended. However, a more thorough examination reveals why such draconian minimum sentences are not always in the interest of true justice.
At the time she was sentenced, the only sentence allowed under federal guidelines for her level of drug crime was life in prison, in spite of her having little criminal history and no history of violence. Paulette is now 73 years old, has already served over fifteen years in prison since her 2004 arrest, and her behavior since her incarceration shows a level of recognizance and rehabilitation that should be the desire of any humane justice system.
Martin successfully earned her GED and completed many other programs. She even became a mentor for other prisoners participating in educational programming as well. Because of her excellent behavior, she was transferred to a minimum security facility, and she has expressed hope that she can continue her in her mentoring capacity for at-risk youth upon earning her freedom.
Her public defender noted that “Martin’s journey toward rehabilitation is especially noteworthy because she was given a life sentence and had no idea that Amendment 782 would eventually arrive to give her a glimmer of hope,” and that even the government admitted that “Martin’s postsentencing behavior is among the best that it has seen.”
Amendment 782 refers to a 2014 revision to federal sentencing guidelines so that the sentence for crimes such as Martin’s could range between 360 months and life in prison. Martin thus filed for her sentence to be reconsidered on the low end of these new guidelines - which still would have meant she would remain imprisoned until she was at least 84. Yet even this modest reduction in sentence was rejected, although her petition has been remanded back to district court after a circuit court panel found that her judges failed to provide the required level of reasoning for why they rejected her appeal.
Aside from merely being technically eligible for a shorter sentence, Martin’s circumstance also demonstrates shortcomings in federal compassionate release guidelines. Although most often reserved for extraordinary circumstances such as a terminal illness diagnosis, advanced age, and family support can be considered as grounds for compassionate release. However, for the old age to be factored in, the most recent update to these guidelines states that a prisoner must not only be over the age of 70 but must have served 30 or more years of their sentence, a seemingly arbitrary condition that prevents Martin from eligibility.
The case for compassionate release is especially accentuated during the current COVID-19 epidemic, as the easily spread virus rips through crowded facilities such as prisons. Out of about 142,000 federal prisoners, over 1,000 have already tested positive for COVID-19 as of this writing, and that figure will naturally rapidly rise, given the close quarters inherent to prisons. Martin is squarely in the category of those who are most vulnerable to the disease due to her advanced age and history of cardiac issues.
A simpler way past all these technicalities would be for the President to commute Paulette Martin’s sentence. The continued incarceration, at taxpayer expense, of a prisoner demonstrating such strong evidence of rehabilitation makes little sense, particularly in the case of an elderly woman with no history of violence who has family waiting to take her in after release. Public safety will not be harmed by her release, and she can serve as an example for others offenders to look to.