A second chance in life

The story of one of the men whose sentences Obama commuted shows the importance of second chances.

In your paper's July 17 editorial "Crime and punishment," you examined President Barack Obama's recent decision to grant clemency to 46 drug offenders, including our client, Norman O'Neal Brown. The article concluded that Mr. Brown's original sentence of life in prison without parole made not "the least bit of sense." We couldn't agree more. Mr. Brown sincerely regrets his past actions, but the sentence that was imposed was strikingly out of proportion to Mr. Brown's non-violent drug offenses. Even Mr. Brown's sentencing judge lamented that the sentence he was obligated to impose was "tragically disproportional" to Mr. Brown's offenses. By serving nearly 24 years in prison, Mr. Brown has paid his debts to society.

In our view, however, the editorial missed an important — indeed, the crucial — part of why Mr. Brown was deserving of commutation. Put simply, Mr. Brown has transformed his life. Facing life imprisonment with no possibility of parole in his early 20s, Mr. Brown nonetheless dedicated his life to helping others, by mentoring younger inmates and steering them away from lives of crime. He never received a disciplinary violation in his decades in prison. He created and led various prison support groups and he took it upon himself to work with young men coming into prison. Prison staff praised Mr. Brown as a "model prisoner." Upon his release, Mr. Brown hopes to work with underprivileged youth in his community — in particular, to help persuade young men not to engage in crime. He has made it his life's mission to help others avoid the tragic mistakes he made as a young man.

As President Obama remarked last Monday: "America is a nation of second chances." Mr. Brown has earned his, and we are proud to have represented him in connection with his petition for commutation.

David W. Ogden, Kelly P. Dunbar and Jessica B. Leinwand, Washington

The writers are attorneys at WilmerHale LLP.

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