Bobby Reed was in a tough place when his auto parts store started going under the in mid 1990s. The way he tells it, he had to borrow cash from a local drug dealer to keep his family afloat.
"Well, time came to pay, and I didn't have the [drug dealer's] money," he told VICE on HBO back in 2015. "Well, basically he said, 'Here, take this, and get the money.'"
Reed started moving drugs to work off his debt—until 1996, when he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, among other related offenses, and given a life sentence at the apex of the War on Drugs. But on Tuesday, as President Barack Obama's decision to commute most of Chelsea Manning's remaining sentence shocked people around world, Reed's family back in Fort Worth, Texas, was much more interested in another name on the Department of Justice's latest clemency list. After more than 20 years behind bars, Reed has a release date, assuming good behavior: July 19, 2022.
VICE first met Reed as part of Fixing the System, in which CEO and host Shane Smith traveled to El Reno, Oklahoma with Barack Obama, who became the first-ever sitting president to visit a federal prison. As part of a broader push for criminal justice reform in his second term, Obama specifically called out racially-charged sentencing disparities and America's overcrowded corrections system. It's not hard to see why: Despite having only 5 percent of the world's population, the United States houses almost a quarter of the Earth's prisoners.
Watch the full VICE on HBO special where President Obama visits a federal prison and meets Bobby Reed.
As recently as a couple years ago, Obama was regarded as rather stingy when it came to issuing pardons and commutations. But his administration has since trumpeted an initiative to encourage non-violent drug offenders to seek clemency, one in which inmates who would likely receive more lenient sentences today have been given special preference.
In 2010, Obama signed a law modestly reducing the glaring disparity in the disproportionate amount of prison time imposed for the same amount of crack versus powdered cocaine. Reed, who was held accountable for at least 50 grams of crack and five kilograms of coke, argued for relief due to the revision.
"Every time a list comes out, my family is checking it anxiously looking for names," Reed's niece Latoya Stewart told VICE via the phone. "And so when the last list came out in December, just knowing that it was getting really close to the end of the term for this particular president, we were cautiously optimistic––but more cautious than optimistic."
Reed's family has been working to bolster his clemency application by collecting letters of support from business, community and religious leaders. And even though he doesn't get out immediately, Stewart noticed a major difference in Reed's tone of voice upon talking to him over the phone. Imagining her uncle being home is surreal––she can't wait for him to take her son fishing, for instance and for the huge celebration that will no doubt welcome him back to Texas.
But even if Stewart feels incredibly lucky, that doesn't mean she's made peace with how criminal justice operates in America.
"While I am thrilled about my uncle's sentence being commuted, I am also really clear that there were [many thousands of] applications for clemency, which speaks to a system that is severely broken," she said. "And while my family is in a position to celebrate, there are some families who are not as fortunate. We shouldn't be patching Band Aids, we should be looking at systemic issues, and I remain committed to that effort."
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