Obama commutes Sarasota woman’s life prison sentence for drug crimes
On Dec. 19, 2018, 48-year-old Cheryl Howard’s life sentence will expire.
Lavithia, her only daughter, has had three children who have only known their grandmother through a computer screen. She has been worried about her mother’s health since she had an aneurysm in prison early last year. She’s even delayed her wedding so her mother can walk her down the aisle.
For 22 years, Howard has been behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense. For 22 years, her daughter lived without a mother.
On Monday, Howard was one of 231 people to which President Barack Obama granted clemency, which the most any president has ever granted in a single day.
The news came to Lavithia the day after her 34th birthday. When she spoke to her mother, Howard cried nonstop.
“I can’t believe it, V,” Lavithia said her mother told her Monday, calling her by her nickname. “I’m getting out.”
Obama pardoned 78 people while commuting the sentences of 153 others. Fifty-four individuals were serving life sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, including Howard, an inmate at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.
To date, Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,176 people. His total is more than the past 11 presidents’ grants of clemency combined, and he is expected to grant more commutations and pardons before he leaves office in January.
Lavithia was 11 when her mother was convicted in April 1995 by the Middle District of Florida of conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute and two counts of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute of 50 grams of crack cocaine — an amount Howard said hardly fills a bottle of Tylenol.
The young girl grew up living with her great-Aunt Lisa and great-Uncle Dave in Baltimore. The last time she saw her mother in person was 14 years ago.
“To see your parent in jail, incarcerated, I certainly had post-traumatic issues with that,” Lavithia said Tuesday. “It’s very stressful for a young child.”
Now, Howard could potentially get out as early as next year to live in a transition house if she enrolls in an inpatient drug treatment program.
“I think it’s bizarre that we justify the drug war that we claim that it’s being done to save lives, and yet under the drug war they’ll casually throw a life away,” said CAN-DO founder Amy Povah.
The nonprofit organization’s mission is spelled out: Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders. Povah said Howard has been in contact with CAN-DO for over a year to get her sentence commuted.
It was her conspiracy charge that got her the life sentence without the chance of parole with 10 years’ supervised release. Povah said conspiracy charges are filed when people are held responsible for the actions of others by association.
The weight of a life sentence is palpable, Povah said.
“There’s days when you physically feel the pressure in your chest,” Povah said. “You have to gasp because there’s just a physical weight.”
Lavithia has worked to get her mother out of prison for eight years. In November, she visited Washington, D.C., with other activists seeking clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. She also started a Change.org petition that garnered more than 96,000 signatures.
Lavithia felt like she was sitting in limbo.
She had no idea where in the White House the petition was to grant her mother clemency.
“We just have to sit here and wait,” she had said in a phone interview earlier this month.
Time was running out. She was worried that her mother wouldn’t be granted clemency before the inauguration of Donald Trump, who Lavithia feels won’t be as forgiving.
She said she couldn’t understand why her mother received a life sentence, when there were “people killing people out here who are getting less sentences than them.”
While incarcerated, Howard has received her GED, taken college courses and started to study cosmetology in September, according to her CAN-DO profile. She was No. 4 on the organization’s list of the top 25 women who deserve clemency and wants to start her “Fed Up” program, which stands for Federal Ex-offender’s Driven to their Unexpected Potential, to help women and children going through what she did.
Howard said on the profile that she’s looking forward to reuniting with her daughter, who she said she hurt the most.
“She is the victim here, and I owe her my time, love and an opportunity for us to heal from our separation,” Howard wrote.
Povah’s personal mission is to see more women be granted clemency, as they represent a small percentage of the 1,176 individuals whose sentences Obama either commuted or pardoned.
“Mothers and dads are dying, children are growing up,” Povah said. “It’s time to have a little compassion upon these people.”
Lavithia added to Povah’s sentiment. She said she feels happy and blessed that her mother will soon be home, but the work isn’t over yet.
“The fight doesn’t just stop with her,” she said. “There’s still other families…like my mother, other children just like myself.”
At the end of the day, they’ll fight together.