He won the ultimate prison lottery, then tore up the ticket: Phillip Morris

September 9, 2018

He won the ultimate prison lottery, then tore up the ticket: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Freedom apparently isn’t for everyone. Antwon Rogers of Parma Heights is headed back to a federal prison he was never supposed to have left.

Rogers’ three-year flirtation with an improbable freedom was terminated Wednesday when U.S. District Court Judge John Adams, a federal jurist with a reputation for throwing the book at drug offenders, sentenced him to nearly five years for probation violations.

Rogers’ return to prison is no small part ironic. He had already served 22 years of a life sentence for cocaine distribution, when then-President Barack Obama took a personal interest in his case in 2015. Rogers wasn’t a drug kingpin, but he was a three-time convicted felon. The president decided to commute his life sentence.

The move was all about providing second chances to inmates who had been swept up in the nation’s so-called war on drugs in the 1980s and ’90s. Obama had concluded that mandatory drug sentencing laws were unduly punitive, sometimes punishing drug offenders more harshly than murderers or rapists. The president sought to correct what he saw as an injustice. Rogers was one of 1,715 non-violent drug offenders who had their sentences commuted by Obama.

Now Rogers, 47, is back behind bars, and a few important questions are likely to go unanswered. Namely, why would Rogers, who had a construction job and a seemingly tenable future, squander his freedom?

I called Jeff Lazarus, a federal public defender, who represented Rogers on the recent probation violation case and also had spearheaded his successful clemency request. Lazarus had previously been quoted describing the moment that he learned Obama would commute his client’s sentence as one of the proudest moments of his legal career. Friday he didn’t want to talk about the case. That’s understandable.

Is there really any way to spin this story into anything but a tragic tale of human failure, and maybe addiction and mental health issues?

It is worth recalling, however, what Obama said in a letter he wrote to Rogers when he granted him commutation. The letter was more than a pep talk. It offered insightful life counseling and implored the convicted felon to use his restored freedom to pursue a meaningful life. The letter candidly addressed the hopes and continued challenges of rehabilitation.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances,” read the letter, which the Obama White House released.

“But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.”

Now, we can only wonder what has happened to the 1,714 other inmates whom Obama believed deserved a second chance. Have they made the most of the opportunity to forge a life on the right side of the law?

One also can’t help but wonder whether Ohio’s and the nation’s drug laws will eventually reflect the reality of America’s rampant drug use and drug addiction. Our prisons still teem with costly, non-violent drug offenders, and tens of thousands of Americans continue to die annually from heroin and opioid overdoses.

The continuing challenge is our inability to address this plague that often stems from debilitating addictions and mental health issues. Prison and mass incarcerations won’t fix that. We’ve already tried. America has a catastrophic drug problem desperately in need of new solutions.

Ironically, when Rogers is scheduled to be released in a few years, he may well discover that marijuana, the drug that landed him back to prison, may be legally available. Ohio’s medical marijuana dispensaries are scheduled to go live this year.