US & Canada

Poster child of US drug wars to be freed

Richard Van Winrow with his niece, Tammy Eley, on a visit in the mid-1990s Image copyright Courtesy Tammy Eley
Image caption Richard Van Winrow with his niece, Tammy Eley, on a visit in the mid-1990s

In 1988, a small-time drug dealer became the first man charged under a new, harsh drug law signed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Almost 30 years later, President Barack Obama granted a sentence commutation to Richard Van Winrow, a literal posterboy for the history of America's drug war.

When he was 22 years old, Winrow was arrested in his mother's home in Los Angeles, California, with 151.9 grams of crack cocaine, a scale, a gun and $3,209 (£2,444) in cash. It was not his first bust - he had been arrested three times over the course of three months with tiny amounts of the same drug, and admitted he was a dealer.

Winrow was sentenced to life in prison under a brand new law. He was the first person in the US to be charged under the Anti-Drug Abuse Law of 1988, one of the cornerstones of Reagan's "war on drugs".

"The poor schmuck just happened to be unlucky that he is the first one," Assistant US Attorney John Gordon told reporters at the time.

This week, that same "poor schmuck" got the news he has been hoping for for 28 years - he is going home. He was one of 111 inmates who were granted clemency by President Obama this week. A total of 673 inmates have been approved for clemency by the administration so far.

Image caption Newspaper clippings contrasted the judge who sentenced Winrow to life in prison, though they were from the same neighbourhood

"It's amazing: yesterday I got to call three people who had been told they would spend the rest of their lives in prison and told them they were going to get out," says Mark Osler, a lawyer who is representing several clemency petitioners around the country, including Winrow.

"He was the most even-keeled of the people I talked to. I think that he seemed to have had a justified hope that this day would come."

At the time of Winrow's arrest, the country was in the worst throes of the crack epidemic. The cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine was ravaging predominantly African-American neighbourhoods like Winrow's in Los Angeles. During these years, the homicide rate for young, African-American men rose significantly, with officials placing the blame on gangs warring over drug territory.

In response, then-President Reagan passed new federal laws that doled out harsh mandatory sentences for possession or distribution of even small amounts of crack.

Image copyright Courtesy Tammy Eley
Image caption Winrow's sentence was meant to deter other young men from getting involved with drugs

In 1988, just months before Winrow was arrested, Reagan signed into law an addendum that made it possible to sentence men and women who were on their third crack possession charge to a life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Los Angeles police believed that such a punitive sentencing strategy would deter young dealers, or inspire them if caught to turn in their more powerful bosses.

At the time, Winrow was acknowledged to be no kingpin. None of his previous crimes involved any acts of violence.

But the judge in the case was unswayed. "Congress has gone out to battle the drug war, and this man is one of the enemies," he said just before handing down his decision: Winrow would die behind bars.

It was clear local police wanted to make an example out of Winrow. They announced that they would be plastering drug-ravaged neighbourhoods in Los Angeles with posters showing his face and detailing the crimes that had earned him a life sentence.

"It was really unbelievable to think they would do that to somebody, especially for the crime that it was," recalls Winrow's niece, Tammy Eley.

"So many people have been to jail for murder and that kind of thing - they've got out, went back to jail, and got out again."

A lot has changed since 1988.

Image copyright Pool
Image caption President Obama recently met men and women granted clemency

The War on Drugs - at least the version that treated locking up street-level dealers and addicts for decades as an effective form of crime prevention - has been declared an "utter failure" by the current president.

The US incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other nation in the world in part thanks to laws like the 1988 one that sent Winrow away. Members of both main political parties regard this as an expensive and disastrous result.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Obama dismantled the mandatory five-year minimum for simple crack possession that Reagan championed, and dramatically reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine possession and powder cocaine possession convictions. If Winrow were sentenced today, says Osler, he would have received 10 years instead of life.

Winrow was regarded as an "enemy" in the 1980s. This week, White House counsel Neil Eggleston referred to him as an "individual" who deserves a second chance. Throughout his incarceration, Winrow has never been violent. He has worked in the cafeteria and the law library, earning his high school equivalency degree and logging 105 hours in various classes.

Image copyright Courtesy Natasha VanLieshout
Image caption Winrow, who entered the system at 21, is scheduled to walk free just before his 50th birthday

Osler hopes that Winrow - who is set to be released in August 2017 and will go to live with relatives in Los Angeles - will make up for the lost time with his children and grandchildren, some of whom he has never met.

"It's a bookend on the harshest sense of retribution being applied indiscriminately. I think a crack dealer is no longer the worst thing a person can be," says Osler. "Crack didn't go away - just the people did."

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