Dear Obama: Give clemency to my dad, a drug offender doing life in prison
It's a day before Christmas and I'm grief-stricken. This is the 29th Christmas in a row I've spent apart from my dad, William Underwood.
President Barack Obama made a groundbreaking commitment to criminal justice reform over the past two years by using his clemency authority to provide a second chance to over 1,000 people convicted with extremely harsh drug sentences. But with the clock ticking on his departure from the White House, time is running out for my incarcerated father and so many other deserving incarcerated mothers and fathers.
It's a time for gift giving, celebration and reuniting with family — but once again the stain of mass incarceration continues to be the Grinch that stole my Christmas.
That's why I'm sending an urgent plea to Obama to recognize more deserving incarcerated people — parents, some now grandparents, who have been incarcerated over 20 years who, if not freed through clemency, will be stuck in prison with a life sentence.
One of those deserving individuals is my elderly father, William Underwood, arrested nearly 30 years ago for a drug offense, his first and only felony conviction.
So that Obama would hear my plea, I teamed up with a group of others who, like me, have elderly parents incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. We made a video where we read aloud my letter to the president.
My loving father has never once stopped being a part of my life or the lives of my siblings during his more than a quarter of a century in prison. He is remorseful for selling drugs, has a clean institutional record and mentors the younger guys in prison to keep them on track and out of trouble. Plus, empirical data shows that people age out of criminality and that prisons are not designed for the elderly — which is exactly why Obama should give clemency to more elderly people.
This past summer, my father had the pleasure of meeting New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker during his visit to Fairton correctional facility in New Jersey.
"The man that stood before me was an intelligent, capable, a dedicated father, and an atoned man," Booker wrote in an Instagram post after the meeting. "He has accepted responsibility for his crime. America is the land of second chances. It's time we lived up to that and show mercy to a man who has served almost three decades in prison."
My devoted dad — a former music impresario who jumpstarted, promoted and managed careers of top '80s and '90s funk, pop and R&B acts — was sentenced at the height of his music industry career to a concurrent 20-year mandatory minimum sentence on RICO drug conspiracy charges. On top of that, he received a mandatory life without parole sentence on a continuing criminal enterprise charge — which is used to target participants in long-running or elaborate drug dealing schemes — despite an FBI document that states his case was closed in 1986 "due to lack of his activity."
My father completed the 20-year part of this mandatory minimum sentence in 2008. However, he continues to remain behind bars for life, due to the nonviolent, continuing criminal enterprise charge.
The judge in the case had decided to add the life without parole sentence with no jury present. Today, such an act by a judge without a jury is unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, due to the lack of retroactivity in the law — meaning the new laws don't apply to old cases — my 63-year-old father remains stuck in a federal prison under an outdated statute with no means for relief.
My father's story has earned him — and us, his family — a groundswell of support for his immediate release from members of the community, professionals in the music and entertainment industries, scholars, civil rights and conservative leaders and formerly incarcerated mentees.
Obama has already commuted the sentences of 14 people with the same continuing criminal enterprise charge that gave my dad mandatory life without parole.
But my dad continues to sit in prison with no sign of relief.
I pray that Obama will hear my plea, reconsider and take a deeper look at the cases of deserving elderly parents — such as my dad, William Underwood — whose sentences, after decades in prison, no longer serve the interests of justice or our taxpayer dollars. My siblings, his grandchildren, family and I want and need our dad home now.
Ebony Underwood is a Soros Justice Fellow and the daughter of William Underwood, who has served 29 years of a mandatory life sentence without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. She is an advocate for children impacted by parental incarceration and keeping families connected.