Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 
By Jon Schuppe

It has been nearly 16 years since Edward Douglas was sentenced to life in federal prison for selling 140 grams of crack, and the punishment still confounds him.

"I ain’t never been a saint, but I ain’t been that bad where I thought I deserved that sentence," Douglas said in a recent phone call with his lawyers.

Douglas, 55, is among more than 2,000 federal inmates serving lengthy prison terms for crack-related offenses, part of the costly legacy of America's turn to mandatory minimum drug-sentencing laws three decades ago.

Now, they may have a shot at freedom.

Edward Douglas with his sister Veronica Douglas, left, and his aunt Addie Dorsey in prison.Courtesy of The Decarceration Collective

A landmark criminal justice bill that was approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday after passing the Senate on Tuesday ─ and now awaits a promised signature from President Trump ─ would ease some mandatory minimum sentences and give inmates more opportunities to earn early release. Once it becomes law, Douglas and the federal prison system's longest-serving crack offenders will become eligible for release.

The bill, called the First Step Act, includes a provision that makes retroactive a 2010 law that decreased crack penalties, which have been used disproportionately against black people, federal data show. It also eases mandatory minimums for repeat drug offenders — once embraced by the Trump Justice Department despite also being used disproportionately against African-Americans — and eliminates the three-strikes life sentence that ensnared Douglas.

"We talk about it so much. A lot of us around here are happy," Douglas said from the federal penitentiary in Pekin, Illinois, on Wednesday. Inmates there have talked about the bill's progress "all day every day," Douglas said.

"We're not saying we shouldn't be given time for the crimes we did. But you should look at the person himself and the crime the person did," Douglas said. Then, if judges think a long prison term is justified, "they should give it."

But giving nonviolent drug offenders decades behind bars, "that's just not right."

'I can't believe this could happen'

In the spring of 2001, Douglas twice got caught selling crack cocaine to a federal informant in central Illinois ─ small-time deals that carried an extraordinarily harsh sentence.

Fifteen years earlier, during a 1980s anti-drug panic, Congress toughened the penalties for drug dealing, with particular emphasis on crack. That meant trouble for Douglas: Charged with selling 140 grams, he faced at least 10 years in federal prison.

But those tough drug laws went even further. Because Douglas had two prior convictions ─ one for possessing a small amount of marijuana and one for possessing a small amount of cocaine, neither of which resulted in jail time — the crack sales allowed prosecutors to seek a life sentence.

Douglas, the father of small children, didn’t want to believe that he could end up behind bars for that long. A Chicago Transit Authority maintenance worker, he insisted he had been set up and refused to serve as an informant or plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. Prosecutors then sought a life sentence under a federal three-strikes law. He went to trial in February 2003 and was convicted, making that life sentence mandatory.

The judge said that left him no choice but to order Douglas to spend the rest of his years in a federal penitentiary.

Even then, the sentence shocked Douglas. His mother and aunts, sitting behind him in court, burst into tears. Douglas tried to maintain his composure.

"I can't believe this could happen," he recalled thinking at the time. "Especially for drugs."

Douglas appealed the sentence and lost. His only hope of seeing the outside of a prison was a presidential pardon.

Now there could be another path.

'We are fighting for him'

The First Step Act would make about 2,660 prisoners ─ 89 percent of them black ─ who were sentenced for crack-related crimes before 2010 eligible for release, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Douglas’ lawyers say he would be included in that group because he has already served the mandatory minimum sentence under the 2010 law and the life sentence would no longer apply to his offense. They have collected letters from officials at the Pekin penitentiary praising him for his work ethic and clean disciplinary record. Douglas has also worked with inmates at risk of suicide and refereed sporting events.

Once Trump signs the bill into law, Douglas' lawyers said, they will file a motion in court for his release.

"If it is granted, he will be immediately taken out of prison,” said MiAngel Cody, one of the lawyers and a founder of The Decarceration Collective, which represents people serving life sentences.

For Douglas and others like him, watching the First Step Act’s slow journey through Congress has been an exercise in carefully managing expectations.

“I’ve told him we are fighting for him and he matters and he is not forgotten," Cody said.

'We were just crushing lives'

Among those who haven’t forgotten Douglas is the judge who sentenced him, Michael P. McCuskey.

“I remember Edward Douglas like yesterday because it was so horrific to see someone who’d never been in jail before, who had a job and in less than a week after going to trial was going to prison for life,” McCuskey said.

McCuskey started his career on the state bench, then spent 16 years as a judge in the U.S. District Court of Central Illinois, which has the nation's highest rate of prosecutors seeking mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders. He found himself forced to give hundreds of nonviolent offenders like Douglas more time in a federal prison than what some murderers received in state court. He finally got fed up and returned to the state bench, glad to oversee medical-malpractice and personal-injury lawsuits.

“Disillusioning and disheartening,” McCuskey said of his time as a federal judge. “I never felt I was making a dent in the drug traffic. We were just crushing lives. That’s what we were doing.”

He added, “I hope this bill does something to help that.”

'I'll hug him'

Douglas’ supporters see him as a case study in the unfairness of the federal criminal justice system, and the First Step Act’s potential to diminish further damage.

Those supporters include the children who grew up without him.

Shanice Douglas at the Supreme Court in Washington earlier this year.Courtesy of The Decarceration Collective

Shanice Douglas last saw her father when she was 7, on a trip to a water park. After he was sent away, she was raised by her mother and grandmother. When she was 9, she and her family moved to rural Mississippi.

“My dad would always say, ‘I’m coming home,’” Shanice Douglas, 24, said. “From my understanding, he never believed he had life in prison. But he knew the justice system screwed him over.”

Although he couldn’t be physically present with his kids, Douglas called them regularly, sent them birthday cards and Christmas gifts, and never allowed them to think they’d never see him again.

"I never told them I had the life sentence," Douglas said. "I didn't want to tell them that because I'd been with my kids and around my kids all my life and I wasn't one of those dads who was not doing for his kids."

The other adults in her family shielded Shanice Douglas from the truth of her father's sentence.

She only learned about it last year, after moving back to Chicago and being contacted by her father's lawyers.

“I was distraught,” she recalled.

She thought of a man she knows who killed his sister and was out of prison after 10 years. “And yet here is my father who didn’t hurt a fly. Yes, he deserved to be punished. But a murderer deserves to see daylight before my father does? That’s heartbreaking.”

She has yet to visit her father in Pekin ─ for a long time, she didn't have a car to make the three-hour drive, and her ill grandmother had stopped making the trip.

Now that the First Step Act is close to becoming law, she allows herself to think about meeting him when he comes home.

“I’ll hug him,” she said. “And I probably won’t let go for a really long time.”