Carol Denise Richardson was sentenced to life in prison in 2006. Her crime? Possessing 50 grams or more of cocaine. Prosecutors said she intended to distribute the drugs. But what she had was crack cocaine and, like many in prison, she claimed the chunks of cocaine were to feed her own addiction — that she had no intention to share or sell them.
When Barack Obama was president, he agreed with criminal justice reform advocates who argued current laws unjustly treated those found with crack cocaine the same as those caught with more expensive, but less bulky, pure form of powder cocaine. Since prosecution and sentencing standards are based on weight, a handful of rocks of crack could result in much harsher punishment.
Based on this argument, Obama chose to grant clemency to a record number of prisoners who had committed nonviolent drug-related offenses. In 2016, Richardson became one of them. But now, she has been ordered to return to federal prison after violating the terms of her supervised release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas said Thursday.
Richardson, a 49-year-old resident of Texas City, was originally convicted in 2006 for “conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine as well as two counts of possession with the intent to distribute cocaine base.” At the time, U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison sentenced her to life in federal prison, noting that she had an extensive criminal history.
Richardson had already served about a decade of her life sentence when she received a reprieve last year, under an agreement that her release would be supervised for 10 years. For Richardson and hundreds of other nonviolent drug offenders granted clemency, the truncated prison sentence was a rare opportunity to reenter society. During his two terms in office, Obama commuted a total of 1,715 prison sentences, more than any other president in history.
Richardson was released from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on July 28, 2016.
However, on April 13, less than a year after her release, Richardson was arrested for theft in Pasadena, Tex., a Houston suburb.
According to acting U.S. attorney Abe Martinez, Richardson also violated four other terms of her release, including a failure to report any “law enforcement contact” to her probation officer within 72 hours.
“She has also failed to maintain regular contact with the U.S. Probation Office and failed to report that she had been terminated from her employment with Home Health Providers for abandoning her position,” Martinez said in a statement. “She also failed to report a change in her residence. In fact, as of May 15, 2017, attempts to reach her were unsuccessful, and her whereabouts were unknown.”
Richardson was finally located and arrested May 31, Martinez said. In a hearing Thursday, Ellison — the same judge who had sentenced Richardson to life in federal prison in 2006 — told her he was disappointed that she had wasted “the extremely rare opportunity she was given,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ellison ordered Richardson to return to federal prison for 14 months; afterward, she will be placed on supervised release for five years.
“This defendant was literally given a second chance to become a productive member of society and has wasted it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ted Imperato said in a statement after the hearing. “She has clearly shown a willful disregard for the law and must face the consequences for her crimes and actions.”
Mark Anthony Diaz, an attorney for Richardson, did not immediately return messages Saturday morning. Diaz told the Houston Chronicle that Richardson’s theft was for $60 worth of laundry detergent that she was going to sell for drug money and that she cried at her hearing.
Diaz said Richardson’s addiction to crack cocaine was why she relapsed and fell out of touch with her support system after her release, and he asked to know why she had not received drug treatment in prison, the Chronicle reported.
The CAN-DO Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders — including that of Richardson while she was imprisoned — echoed those concerns.
“We are very concerned to hear that Carol Richardson has been sent back to prison for various probation violations that appear to stem from her drug addiction that has gone untreated,” the group said in a statement. “The system has failed Carol, yet again. It will be easy for some to point a finger at Carol and justify their support of harsh mandatory sentences as a necessity to keep people locked up, when we feel Carol’s current situation is proof that we desperately need to overhaul our current drug policy that treats addiction as a criminal issue, rather than a medical issue.”
While in prison, Richardson had been in contact with CAN-DO to make a case for her clemency. She detailed the circumstances that led to her life sentence, and said she had admitted herself into rehab in March 2005 and was getting treatment when she was indicted.
“I was a drug user and do not consider myself a drug dealer because I never profited from the sell of drugs,” Richardson wrote in a letter to the group. “I was convicted on testimony alone — no proof.”
She also noted that, among her four male co-defendants, including her husband, she received the harshest sentence for being present at two drug “buys,” despite never receiving money.
CAN-DO supported and prioritized Richardson’s case, placing her on its list of “Top 25 Women” seeking clemency, because the group felt she had been “tossed into the indictment, not because they profited from the drug trade, but because they were feeding a habit or in a relationship with a man involved in the drug trade.”
“Often, when the major dealers are arrested, they are offered sentence reductions if they will provide ‘substantial assistance’ and provide more names that can be added to the indictment,” the group says on its website. “Often, that will include anyone associated even slightly to the drug activity, including women who may have been a courier in exchange for drugs, or given very little money to feed their habit.
“Tragically, Carol fell into this category.”
Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, told The Washington Post that, unlike some others the group has worked with, Richardson fell out of touch after she was released from prison.
“Most people do,” Povah said. “Carol was a little more introverted.”
She said the group does not keep statistics on the recidivism rate of those who had been granted clemency — beyond trying to keep in touch with former prisoners — but said that Richardson’s case was “extremely rare.” Povah said she had only known of one other person, Robert M. Gill of San Antonio, who had been returned to prison after being granted a second chance under Obama.
Earlier this year, Gill was arrested after being caught with cocaine and trying to flee from officers, according to the San Antonio Express News. Povah told The Post she felt Gill’s case was “more alarming … whereas it seems (Carol Richardson’s) behavior and lack of success is related to probation violations, many of which stem from her addiction.”
According to Povah, Richardson had always been forthcoming about her drug addiction, but was never able to take a 500-hour drug program in prison. She also likely had little assistance with medical issues, Povah said.
Like Carol, most people who get life sentences, upon release “literally have NO FUNDS, no home, no fruits from the drug trade that the feds wants the public to believe they were profiting from,” Povah wrote in an email. “Carol is a self admitted drug addict who used ‘daily,’ and tried to get help but never completed the program due to her addiction. The actual drug dealers in her case cut deals and are were back on the street in a few short years — so why are we hyper focused on Carol’s recidivism[?] Hopefully, her case can be used to understand what is wrong with our current drug war policy from start to finish.”