At just 25 years old, Ricky Eugene Patterson's future seemed finished when he was imprisoned for life in 1995 for planning to peddle a handful of crack-cocaine rocks, says the Miami Herald. Last month, President Obama gave the Florida man a long-awaited chance to make good on his remaining years. Obama commuted his life term — along with lengthy sentences for seven other crack cocaine convicts. Clemency for the fortunate few addressed only a tiny fraction of the roughly 9,000 federal inmates serving what critics have long called draconian prison terms for crack cocaine convictions.
The president's action focused new attention on a controversial U.S. sentencing policy adopted at the height of the war on drugs a generation ago that created a sharp racial divide in how the criminal justice system dealt with cocaine cases. Crack cocaine offenses, more prevalent in poor black communities, carried much harsher punishment than those for powder cocaine, more common in affluent white communities. “President Obama has struck a mighty symbolic blow against a crack cocaine sentencing law that appeared neutral on its face but was racially discriminatory in its application,” said Miami attorney, H.T. Smith, who is black. “In my considered judgment, if white defendants were being given jail sentences 100 times stiffer than black defendants for cocaine offenses, this law would have been fixed a decade ago and the lighter sentences would have been made retroactive.” Patterson, 43, has spent the past 18 years taking vocational educational courses, including passing the GED high school-equivalency exam, in pursuit of becoming, in his words, a “model person and example for younger inmates in prison.”