Timothy Tyler’s mother wrote to him in prison this week to ask if he “heard what Mr. Holder said,” referring to the Attorney General’s
major drug policy shift.
Tyler, 45, was sentenced to life in prison without parole under a federal mandatory minimum sentencing law. This law forces judges to issue harsh sentences based on the amount of drugs defendants sell.
On Monday, the Justice Department said prosecutors would no longer charge defendants with dealing specific amounts of drugs if they’re nonviolent and aren’t part of organised drug conspiracies or gangs. That way, mandatory minimum sentences can’t be triggered.
Holder’s announcement applies to cases going forward, so it has no immediate effect on Tyler’s sentence. The U.S. government’s decision to acknowledge the unfairness of his situation still had a big emotional impact on Tyler.
“At one point, I couldn’t see myself becoming free,” Tyler told BI from the federal prison in Waymart, Penn. “The tide might be changing. My mother used to say she didn’t have a child [for him] to spend [his] whole life in prison.”
Tyler, whom we profiled before, told Business Insider on Thursday he was surprised the Justice Department is paying attention to people like him given all the chaos in the world.
“I believe part of the reason they’re looking into it now is all this money we’re wasting,” says Tyler, who has bipolar disorder and started doing LSD as a young man at Grateful Dead concerts.
Tyler has already served 20 years, and he knows he’s exactly the kind of prisoner who would be exempt from mandatory minimums under Holder’s new policy.
“I’m not a gang member or cartel member or anything like this. I’m a nonviolent drug offender,” Tyler said. “I’m one of those people that got a lot of time unfairly … In most cases, if somebody does something wrong they can learn their lesson in a certain amount of time.”
Tyler (and people like him) has two chances at getting released. Holder is working with Congress on bipartisan legislation that would reform mandatory minimum sentencing.
Congress could decide to have that legislation apply retroactively — in which case Tyler could get released, says Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. However, Congress is often reluctant to pass laws that apply to prior cases, she said.
The other possibility is that President Obama could commute Tyler’s sentence. While the Obama administration has been loathe to do that in the past, the Justice Department does seem more inclined to grant leniency for drug offenses these days.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum right now,” Price said.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.