Rasheed Jamal Olds’ story is both a tale of redemption and a glimpse at the ugly reality of how America’s war on drugs has adversely affected the minority community.
Olds, a Kansas City, Kan., native, was 28 when he was convicted of drug trafficking.
Sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, he thought he would die in a federal prison in North Carolina. But the stroke of a presidential pen brought a stroke of good fortune.
Olds’ time behind bars was first amended to 30 years in 2011 under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses and eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for simple possession of crack cocaine.
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In October 2016, then-President Barack Obama commuted Olds’ sentence.
Less than four months later, Olds was a free man. He celebrated his 50th birthday with family and friends this month at a banquet hall in Kansas City.
“I never thought I would see this day,” he said. “I thought I would die (in prison).”
Olds was convicted in 1997 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine and money laundering. He was originally sentenced under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a bill championed by then-President Bill Clinton.
The controversial measure increased incarceration rates and disproportionally affected minorities such as Olds, an African American.
The case snared both the mother of Olds’ child and his own mother, both of whom were sentenced to less than 10 years in prison. The family was torn apart for years.
Olds doesn’t dispute that what he did was wrong, and obviously, it was illegal. But a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent drug conviction?
“The time didn’t fit the crime,” he said.
Olds is now gainfully employed at Georgia-Pacific, a tissue and paper towel manufacturing plant near Worlds of Fun. He also plans to launch a nonprofit that will assist children who have a parent behind bars.
Olds could still be in prison if George Fisher, a law professor at Stanford University and one of the nation’s top scholars of criminal law and evidence, hadn’t taken an interest in his case.
After reading a letter detailing the circumstances behind Olds’ conviction, Fisher concluded that the Kansan’s punishment was unduly heavy-handed.
“Nobody deserves life in prison for a non-violent drug crime,” Fisher said.
Now, though, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doubling down on pre-Obama era guidelines, instructing federal prosecutors to charge suspects with the most serious provable offenses.
The guidance noted: “The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
Both Fisher and Olds are against the current administration’s stance on tougher sentencing guidelines.
Olds believes the Trump administration is trying to eradicate Obama’s legacy. Fisher said the approach will have a devastating impact on families, much as it did with Olds’ family.
According to a 2017 report commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 4,000 federal prisoners remain incarcerated under outdated drug laws. Fisher said he doesn’t expect to see commutations for nonviolent drug offenders under the current administration, though.
Of course, Congress has the ability to pass legislation to eliminate prison terms for lower-level offenses and shorten prison terms for other crimes, according to the report.
Olds’ plight and redemption should inspire even the most hardened opponents of sentencing reform to consider correcting these wrongs.
And in the meantime, the Stanford law professor has a message for the nonviolent drug offenders still serving time.
“I would just tell them to hold on,” Fisher said. “And don’t give up hope.”