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How Would You Spend a Life Sentence?

For one inmate, a new federal law gave hope where there had been none.

By Jesse Wegman - Editorial
Sept. 15, 2019

Imagine that at the age of 28, you’re told you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison with no chance of release. What would you do with all that time?

There’s no shame in admitting you’d want to throw in the towel. It’s a rational reaction to a hopeless situation: Why bother working to improve yourself, learning something new or making amends if nothing you do will ever make a difference?

Gary Rhines, now 46, had every reason to choose that route, after receiving a mandatory sentence of life without parole in 2004 for being a repeat drug offender. As a lifer, Mr. Rhines was last in line for all prison programming; no one cared whether he participated or not. But that didn’t stop him. He earned his high school equivalency diploma. He enrolled in drug-treatment and anger-management programs, learned industrial painting and how to operate a forklift. He received a certificate in a culinary-arts program and worked in the prison chapel.

“All you can do is take care of your end,” Mr. Rhines told me recently in a telephone interview. “I had a list of things that were very important to my success.” If he didn’t do them, he said, “it was me giving up on myself.”

This summer, all those years of work paid off. At a hearing on July 24 in a Harrisburg, Pa., Federal District Court, Judge John E. Jones III resentenced Mr. Rhines to time served — in his case, 18 years, which includes nearly three years of pretrial detention.

The judge was able to impose that sentence thanks to the First Step Act, a new federal law that alleviates some of the most draconian punishments handed down under a string of federal criminal laws and sentencing guidelines passed in the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1994 Crime Bill, which was signed into law 25 years ago last week.

The crime that landed Mr. Rhines in prison for life was relatively minor — he was charged with participating in the sale, in Pennsylvania, of 66 grams of crack cocaine, a little more than the weight of a pack of M&Ms. The crime involved no weapon and no violence. One of his co-defendants received a sentence of nine to 23 months. But Mr. Rhines had been convicted of selling small amounts of drugs twice before, and that made all the difference: Under the sentencing laws, a third drug conviction involving more than 50 grams of crack meant a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Sentences like that are relics of an era when crack and other drugs were ravaging American cities, crime was at all-time highs and the nation was demanding ever tougher punishments, no matter how out of proportion they were to the offense. The laws were sold as a way to take down drug kingpins, but prosecutors frequently used them against small-fry street dealers like Mr. Rhines.

The three-strike provision, in particular, could lead to nonsensical disparities. Mr. Rhines recalled being approached by another inmate early in his time behind bars. “He was, like, ‘You have a life sentence! You got murder?’ I said no. He said, ‘You see that guy over there? Well, that guy got caught with one ton of drugs. He got 10 years for that.’ And I said, wow.”

In requiring stunningly long sentences, the crime bills took power away from judges to make decisions based on a defendant’s unique circumstances — that is, to judge — at the moment such discretion was most needed. Mr. Rhines’s judge might have taken into account not only the nonviolent nature of his crime, but also that by the age of 7, he was watching his mother use heroin and get physically abused by multiple boyfriends. Or that because of her drug addiction, he and his brothers and sisters went for stretches without food, heat, electricity or hot water. Or that he stopped going to school at 11 to provide for his siblings by working as a bag boy at a grocery store. Or that at age 12, he was forced to sell drugs in local crack houses to pay off his mother’s drug debts and was warned that she would be beaten if he didn’t. In other words, from the time he was a little boy, Gary Rhines never stood a chance.

Under the crime bills none of that mattered. All that mattered was that Mr. Rhines was a repeat offender. Most Americans had no patience for stories of abuse and deprivation, but judges still did, even if they couldn’t do anything about it.

Congress finally began to reel in some of its longest and most unjust sentences in 2010, when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a glaring disparity in punishments for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. That should have been good news for inmates like Mr. Rhines, because under the new law, the amount of crack he was convicted of selling no longer triggered a mandatory life sentence. The problem was that the 2010 law applied only to future cases, not past ones.

This is where the First Step Act comes in. Signed last December by President Trump, it slashed the length of drug sentences — for example, the top mandatory-minimum punishment for a third-strike drug offense is now 25 years rather than life. The law also gave judges more power to reduce individual sentences and authorized $75 million in annual funding for prison programs that will help prepare inmates for release. Most importantly, it made the 2010 sentencing law retroactive, which helps the thousands of inmates, like Mr. Rhines, who have been serving absurdly long sentences under a law that Congress itself said was unjust nearly a decade ago.

At Mr. Rhines’s resentencing hearing in July, where he recounted his brutal childhood, Judge Jones noted the painfully slow evolution of America’s criminal-justice system. “It’s taken essentially a quarter-century for policymakers to figure out the fundamental unfairness” of those harsh 1980s and 1990s drug laws, the judge said. He also noted that the trial judge in Mr. Rhines’s case, James McClure, had been frustrated at having his hands tied by the law. “That deprived Mr. Rhines of the determination of a very fair jurist,” Judge Jones said, “who carefully evaluated every case that came before him.” (Judge McClure died in 2010.)

Finally, Judge Jones took note of Mr. Rhines’s self-rehabilitation in an indifferent environment. “Without any hope,” the judge said, “you participated in a number of these programs, which is very impressive to me.”

“You’re asking me to take a leap of faith here, Mr. Rhines,” the judge added. “It’s a shorter leap because of what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished.”

The prosecutor on the case requested that the judge resentence Mr. Rhines to 30 years, which was the term recommended under federal sentencing guidelines. Judge Jones declined. “I just don’t know rationally how anybody can contend with the circumstances of this case, including Mr. Rhines’s personal circumstances,” the judge said, and conclude “that they warrant a 30-year sentence for 66.6 grams of cocaine. That defies credulity and logic, in my view.”

In an email further explaining his decision, Judge Jones told me that he considered Mr. Rhines to be “the very face of the First Step Act” and said it was “unjust, and in fact ludicrous, to have this model inmate spend additional time in federal prison.”

As of August, nearly 1,700 people, 91 percent of them black like Mr. Rhines, have gotten new, shorter sentences under the First Step Act, according to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission. The average reduction is nearly six years, bringing the average sentence of these inmates down from about 20 years to 15 — hardly flinging open the prison gates. But it is part of the larger shift toward a more humane criminal-justice system that has swept the country over the past decade and helped shrink the federal prison population to about 180,000 today, from a high of 220,000 in 2013.

This is real progress, and it is why the First Step Act has been praised as a rare bipartisan success story — one all the more remarkable for the political delicacy of its subject matter. Mr. Trump himself called the older drug sentences “very unfair,” particularly to black inmates like Mr. Rhines.

Still, the law comes up short in important ways. The biggest is that its new reductions of sentences for drug crimes do not apply to past cases. That’s an especially glaring omission given that the First Step Act fixed the identical problem in the 2010 law. In other words, Congress failed to heed its own lesson: If a sentence is determined to be unjust, isn’t it unjust in all situations? Why should it matter when a prisoner was convicted?

Then there’s the foot-dragging by the Justice Department itself, which lobbied against the law and still appears skeptical of its value, which only makes it harder to develop the kinds of programming that can help inmates prepare to be released, as more than 95 percent will be.

Mr. Rhines is already prepared for his new life on the outside. His first plan is to get his commercial driver’s license, so that he can drive tractor-trailers. He also wants to start a line of his own fragrances — a skill he picked up after becoming a practicing Muslim behind bars. “I never really had no talent at anything,” Mr. Rhines said, but “I’m very good at mixing fragrances.”

Those jobs will have to wait for the moment. In a final indignity, immediately after Mr. Rhines was released from federal prison, he was taken into custody by state officials. By committing the drug crime that got him sentenced to life, he also violated his parole for an earlier offense. He is now serving a little more than a year as punishment for that parole violation. Mr. Rhines says he has already served that time, and is trying to find a lawyer to help him litigate the issue. He is scheduled to be released in October 2020.