Courts & Crime

Obama commutes prison sentence of Stockton, Calif., man

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room in Washington on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room in Washington on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. AP

President Barack Obama on Friday commuted an excruciatingly long prison sentence imposed on former Stockton, California, resident Mario Alonzo Johnson, a onetime illiterate drug dealer who turned his life around behind bars.

The pre-holiday presidential move means the 56-year-old Johnson will get out of prison next April, nearly three years earlier than scheduled. In January 1999, Johnson received a 288-month sentence after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

“I feel that what sentence that you may impose, I feel that if I had another chance that I can be productive in society,” Johnson told his trial judge, a transcript shows.

The commutation caps a long struggle for Johnson, who’d racked up several felony drug convictions before the one that sent him away for a long time. Prosecutors secured an enhanced sentence by characterizing him as a “career criminal.”

According to court records, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Johnson in possession of a bag that contained 18 clear plastic bags of crack cocaine and $1,726 in cash. Deputies also discovered a digital scale on the dashboard of his car.

The president’s decision today to commute the prison terms of 95 individuals is another sign of this administration’s strong commitment to ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates

His defense attorneys at the time noted that Johnson had medical problems in addition to not being able to read or write. He was married, with two children.

“Since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve been reading,” Johnson told his trial judge at his sentencing, a court transcript show. “I’ve been studying the word of God. I have a foundation, something I can look for and base my life on.”

In March 2008, court records show, Johnson filed a formal request for reconsideration of his original sentence. Since first going to prison, Johnson noted, he’d completed a literacy program, finished his GED and become licensed as a pastoral minister.

“It is not uncommon to see him at the bedside of dying patients, providing emotional, social and spiritual support,” prison social worker John Getchell wrote in a 2008 declaration.

Johnson’s supporters cite, as well, the depth and sincerity of his religious beliefs.

“Mr. Johnson’s conversion experience in Jesus Christ and his progress would suggest that he will continue in a productive Christian life when he leaves prison,” senior prison chaplain Michael Reighard wrote in a 2008 memo, included in court filings.

An attorney for Johnson couldn’t be reached to comment Friday afternoon.

Johnson’s original sentence was imposed amid the politically charged battle against crack, when lawmakers were ratcheting up mandatory penalties. The reduction of his sentence comes as liberals and conservatives alike reconsider whether the war on drugs went overboard.

All told, Obama commuted the sentences of 95 individuals Friday and pardoned two others. Most of the other inmates were also sentenced on drug charges, some to even longer terms than Johnson. The other Californian to have his sentence commuted, Matthew Murphy III of Moreno Valley, was sentenced in 1997 to 360 months in prison.

“While the clemency initiative is just one prong in the larger effort to reform sentencing practices, it is one to which we are strongly committed,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.

Johnson is incarcerated at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security facility in San Pedro, California.

“With deep meaning,” Johnson told his trial judge nearly 16 years ago, “you will learn what is right and honest and fair. From these, an ordinary person can learn to be smart, and young people can gain knowledge and good sense.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10