Crime & Courts

Obama gave this crack dealer a second chance. Here’s what he’s doing with it.

Commutation recipient James Patterson Jr. had sentence reduced because of Obama

Concord resident James Patterson Jr., a low-level drug dealer, had served more than 14 years of a nearly 22-year sentence in federal prison when a phone call from his lawyer last summer changed his life. President Barack Obama had just commuted hi
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Concord resident James Patterson Jr., a low-level drug dealer, had served more than 14 years of a nearly 22-year sentence in federal prison when a phone call from his lawyer last summer changed his life. President Barack Obama had just commuted hi

Sometimes when James Patterson Jr. can’t sleep, he sits up in bed as the fear returns. It’s a feeling he can’t shake: He’s afraid he’ll go back to prison.

The Concord drug dealer received a nearly 22-year sentence in 2002 for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Under today’s laws, Patterson likely would get about three years.

Last summer, President Barack Obama intervened in his case. It was part of a clemency initiative aimed at low-level, non-violent offenders, serving harsh sentences from out-of-date drug laws.

Obama ordered Patterson freed in December after he spent more than 14 years in federal prison. All told, Obama commuted 1,715 sentences, more than any other president.

The 50-year-old Patterson savors his first months on the outside, even as challenges arise. Bills to pay. New responsibilities. Old temptations, of drug deals and easy money.

“Sometimes that thinking really comes back, ya know,” he said. “And you got the devil on that side. And I gotta say, ‘Nah Lord, You brought me too far. I ain’t going that direction.’

“People can change.”

OD on a dirt road

He doesn’t remember overdosing on crack.

A cousin told him what happened that day in the early 1990s, how he ran through a screen door and passed out on a dirt road near Kannapolis.

Patterson had started using a few years earlier, after being homeless following the deaths of his grandparents who raised him. It took time but he shook his drug habit.

Still, he needed to make money. The illiterate high school drop-out with a drug possession record saw just one option: hustling drugs.

On a typical day, he sold to up to 80 people outside Kannapolis. Six rocks of crack for $100, or maybe an “eight-ball” chunk for $150. In an average week, he figured, he’d earn about $22,500.

Business was thriving. Until, he says, the strippers set him up.

A sentencing surprise

In late August 2001, Patterson said, he drove to meet the women at a Concord gas station.

He had supplied them with crack before, but planned to tell them he didn’t have any drugs that night. When he arrived, they weren’t there but plenty of officers were. He didn’t know that he had just been indicted on a drug case from January.

That fall, Patterson pleaded guilty in federal court to possession with intent to distribute 20.5 grams of crack, and estimated the drugs had a street value of $850 to $900. He faced 10-years-to-life, court records show, and Patterson thought he would get the low end of that sentence.

But he had a trio of prior convictions in Cabarrus County Superior Court between 1991 and 1999: cocaine possession; two counts of sell/deliver cocaine; and possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine. None of the crimes involved violence. But they changed the calculation of his new sentence, where he now was considered a “career offender.”

That meant up to 27 years.

In February 2002, a judge sentenced Patterson to 21 years and eight months in prison, and eight years of supervised release. “I cried like a baby and said, ‘Lord, you got me. Just please protect and guide me.’

‘Lord, Make Me Over’

In prison, Patterson says he saw plenty he’d like to forget. The inmate who got stabbed to death for cutting in the chow line. The prisoner who shoved a lock inside a sock then split open someone’s skull during an argument.

But the toughest part was separation from loved ones. As the years rolled on, the cards stopped coming. The visits became fewer. His girlfriend, mom and sisters stood by him, however. Patterson also was close to his dad, who died in 2008, but he couldn’t go to the funeral.

Patterson says he kept striving to improve himself.

He understood the point one of his teachers in prison made: As a black man with a felony he already had two strikes. But he could do something about the third one: no education.

Patterson learned how to read and write. He received promotions while working at Unicor prison industries. He completed adult continuing education classes from business management to piano theory, attended victim impact programs and sang gospel in prison choirs.

His favorite song: “Lord, Make Me Over.”

He read self-help books and the Bible. Finally, he earned his GED.

By 2013, he landed in a prison in Butner near Durham. He didn’t know the president would soon make decisions that would change his life.

Founding principles

In 2014, mid-way through his second term, Obama began his clemency initiative.

As he later wrote in the Harvard Law Review, such criminal justice reform for people who deserve a second chance “reflects who we are as a people and reveals a lot about our character and commitment to our founding principles.” During his time as a community organizer, he said he saw how the criminal justice system “exacerbates inequality.”

A president has the power to reduce prison sentences for people convicted of a federal crime. President Barack Obama used the power more than any of his predecessors. Here's insight into the record number of commutations.

The “war on drugs” in the 1970s and 1980s led to much harsher punishment for crack versus powder cocaine. The resulting sentences disproportionately impacted minorities, and Congress did not change the laws until 2010.

Criteria for clemency consideration by Obama included: Prisoners likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; are low-level offenders with no significant ties to large criminal organizations; have served at least 10 years of their sentence; and have no history of violence.

Several legal groups formed Clemency Project 2014 to offer inmates free aid. They screened more than 36,000 requests and sent nearly 2,600 petitions to federal authorities for consideration and further winnowing.

Eventually, Obama reviewed each case.

Attorney Naikang Tsao handled Patterson’s case pro bono at Foley & Lardner LLP in Wisconsin.

Under current law, Tsao said, Patterson’s priors would not have qualified him as a career offender and the amount of drugs he had would have been subject to a much lower sentence. Then there was Patterson himself, who never once got an infraction in 14 years in prison.

Last fall, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told reporters she saw a common thread through many petitions: lack of access to education or economic opportunity, absence of parents, drug addiction and hopelessness. But she also saw remarkable introspection, a sense of responsibility and a determination not to repeat mistakes.

She might as well have been talking about Patterson.

The news

Aug. 30, 2016. It’s a day Patterson will never forget, and one that Tsao easily recalls:

Patterson is summoned to the prison administration building.

Sit down and shut the door, his caseworker says. Someone needs to talk to you.

The phone rings and Tsao’s on the other line.

“Man, please don’t give me bad news.”

He doesn’t: “Obama commuted your sentence today.”

Patterson drops the phone. He falls to his knees and cries and cries.

“Hallelujah. Thank you, Jesus,” Patterson shouts, sobbing. “I knew you was going to do it, Jesus. Oh hallelujah.”

His caseworker hugs him. She’s crying.

And she offers some advice: “Don’t let the world out there pull that (faith) out of you.”

Recidivism rates

In addition to Patterson, Obama commuted sentences for 110 other people that day, including four men from the Charlotte area, all with convictions for possession with intent to distribute drugs.

Like any former inmate , they’d face a number of challenges upon release: Find housing, get a job, learn how to handle money. And shun old connections who had gotten them in trouble

Last year, a U.S. Justice Department report found that nearly half of federal prisoners released on community supervision were arrested again within five years. A different study of state inmates found that 77 percent were re-arrested within that time.

Obama’s 1,715 commutations exceeded the numbers granted by the 13 prior presidents combined. George W. Bush issued 11. As a candidate, Donald Trump blasted Obama’s actions, saying, “Some of these people are bad dudes...Sleep tight, folks.”

In February, a Texas drug dealer whose life sentence Obama commuted in 2015 was arrested with more than two pounds of cocaine following a high-speed chase, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Patterson insists that won’t be his fate.

On the outside

Patterson walked out of Butner on Sept. 27. In the parking lot, he hugged Angela, his long-time girlfriend, without guards ordering him to stop.

He spent the next two weeks in a half-way house then was under house arrest until late December.

Long-time friend Russell Young helped him land a job at a Charlotte window manufacturing plant. According to Young, Patterson works hard and avoids his old crowd.

“He wants to work and make honest money,” Young said. “I see that in him, I really do.”

In November, Patterson and Angela, a bus driver for Cabarrus County Schools, were married. They’d been together for 20 years.

Patterson has seven children, ages 17 to 26, and one who died as a baby whose name he has tattooed on the back of his left hand. He’s also raising another child, 14-year-old Alexandrea, as his own daughter.

Patterson says he doesn’t want to let them down. Or his wife. Or Obama.

Jamie Lau, an associate clinical professor of law at Duke Law School, has worked on clemency cases recently. When told of Patterson’s background, he said he is optimistic about Patterson’s chances, given his conduct in prison and the stability of his two-income household away from old haunts.

“It seems like he has a lot of factors in his favor,” Lau said.

Proving them wrong

Sometimes when James Patterson Jr. can’t sleep, he sits up in bed and pride returns instead of fear.

At times, he reads his commutation letter and still chokes up.

“You have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote to him. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

Patterson wants to prove Obama right and the doubters wrong, “that we ain’t nothin’ but drug-dealing thugs.... We’re human beings that made a mistake. And people can change. I’m living proof of that.”

He works, he comes home, he pays the bills, he says he avoids old temptations.

Patterson knows the devil’s out there. But so’s his wife. He calls her his angel.

“I rehabilitated myself through the word of God,” Patterson said. “I looked at all my wrongs and the mistakes I did....I ain’t going back to that life.”

Observer researcher Maria David contributed

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell

What is clemency?

Article II Section 2 of the Constitution grants the president power to issue pardons and reprieves in federal cases. Clemency involves using this power to exercise leniency.

A commutation reduces a prison sentence while it is being served. A pardon is the president’s expression of forgiveness of a crime, and typically is granted after conviction or completion of a sentence.

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