"The whole issue around crack cocaine is a microcosm of everything bad and scary about the drug war," Way said. "You basically have one high-profile situation that led to a lot of bad laws. Crack is no more addictive or damaging than powder."
The mandatory sentences so troubled Denver U.S. District Court Judge John Kane that he exercised his right as a senior judge to pick and choose his cases and refused to hear criminal drug cases from 1989 to 2008.
"I think the war on drugs has been very bad on the administration of justice. It has clogged the courts and the prisons," Kane said.
"And I think there is a demonstrable racial and ethnic bias in the drug laws."
Yielding to changes in public perception, Congress and Obama in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act that changed that formula to treat 1 gram of rock cocaine like 18 grams of powder.
But the act cannot be applied retroactively, so people convicted in the 1990s are condemned to serving their long sentences.
"I would've still been in prison today if I had not been granted executive clemency," Wheelock said. "I'm not claiming innocence. I wasn't granted a pardon. I'm just saying the punishment I received wasn't warranted. It was overkill."
Not everyone believes that the drug war was a failed policy or that Congress should lessen the mandatory minimum sentences.
The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, which represents federal prosecutors, wrote a memo to Attorney General Eric Holder in January, disapproving of his public support for sentencing reform.
"We believe we are obligated to express concern over your actions ... in announcing support for Congressional action that would weaken mandatory minimum sentencing," the group wrote. "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction."
The group has not publicly opposed DOJ's clemency reforms.
— Isolated from change
Wheelock had been jailed continuously since May 7, 1992. That year, the first Internet browser launched, the Space Shuttle Endeavour made its maiden voyage, Los Angeles was embroiled in the Rodney King riots and Russia and the U.S. officially declared the Cold War was over.
"I watched the world change, I saw TV and everything," he said. "I just wasn't a part of it."
From behind cement walls, he watched his children grow into teenagers who faced their own problems and then pass into adulthood.
He helped as much as he could when his mother hit a rough patch, becoming virtually penniless and homeless before rebounding financially, getting a home, falling in love with her now-husband and writing a book of poetry about the loss of her youngest son, Billy, to the drug war.
"I could've lived the life and survived," Wheelock said. "But I couldn't do it because of my mother and all the people who depend on me being strong for them."
And just months before receiving word of his clemency, his father lost his battle with brain cancer, never knowing his son would walk free again.
Congress is now considering the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 that would make reduced sentencing available to those convicted before the 2010 law change — even without a clemency order.
Regardless of the bill's success, the Obama administration intends to act.
Obama has granted fewer pardons and commutations than any other modern U.S. president, which he hopes to correct with the Clemency Project 2014, a series of reforms that will change the way petitions reach his desk.
In his first five years, Obama granted 40 out of 10,001 clemency and pardon petitions received. George W. Bush granted 60 clemency or pardon petitions out of 5,174 received after the same period in office.
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