A commutation gratitude story
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In December 2006, after I had served 14 years in federal prison, President Bush commuted my 22-year sentence. He took a chance on me, and that second chance changed my life.

In 1992, I was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. I was told when I was arrested that I was looking at a year maybe. I went to trial and wound up getting 27 years (which was later reduced to 22 years). I had no clue that one could actually receive 27 years without parole for a first time offense. I thought those kinds of sentences were reserved for predators and those who had committed violent offenses.

My judge looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t want to do this.” The prosecutor stood up and said, “You’ve got to do this,” and the judge told him to sit down. He was mad. He said, “I know what I’ve got to do, but I don’t want to do it.”

It is critical that judges have the discretion to consider each individual’s situation. But mandatory minimum sentences don’t give judges any discretion. Such sentences actually take judges completely out of the equation. For example, everyone who testified against me at trial said they sold me drugs – not a single person testified that I sold them drugs. But every person who testified against me got less time than I did. The sentencing reform legislation pending in Congress would give judges more discretion in cases such as mine.

While in prison, I kicked my addictions, became a Christian, took job training, and volunteered at a hospice for prisoners. And then President Bush gave me the opportunity to prove to others that I had truly changed my life. That opportunity, however, should not have to rely on the mercy and compassion of presidents. It is pertinent that Congress pass legislation that will give the same opportunity to many more people in circumstances similar to mine.

My wife was in a car accident the year after I was locked up and has since been confined to a wheelchair. I had always felt bad about not being able to be there for her. She stuck with me all those years, through thick and thin – very few people do.

When I was first released, I was scared. I had a 14-year gap in my employment. But there were people who took a chance on me. I was lucky to find a job three weeks out of prison and I later used the job training I received in prison to land a solid position maintaining air-handling systems at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City. I have been working there for the past nine years. After about five months on the job, I was blessed to be able to get my wife off of disability. I told her, “I’m going to take care of you now.” It was one of the best moments of my life.

I would be overjoyed to see strong sentencing reform passed and go to the President’s desk for signature. My sentence of 22 years was egregious, and a sentence of life without parole for nonviolent people is unconscionable. One can never underestimate what one act of kindness can do to change somebody’s life. Passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will provide hope to people serving unfairly lengthy prison terms, that they too can rebuild their lives.

Human rights issues around the world are very important to Americans, yet we have imprisoned more of our citizens than any country in the world. We are better than this. Freedom and compassion are at the heart of what it means to be Americans. Our Governor in Iowa, Terry Branstad, just signed a bill that will allow the early release of hundreds of people serving drug felony sentences in Iowa. The bill will also give judges more discretion during sentencing. Please follow the wishes and prayers of most states and help to bring common sense to federal sentencing laws.

Phillip Emmert’s sentence was commuted by President Bush in 2006. He now lives and works in Iowa.