U.S. News


How One Man Is Rebuilding His Life After A Commuted Life Sentence

Rudy Martinez spent 25 years in prison for nonviolent drug charges. He reveals what he missed most while he was behind bars.
Posted at 3:19 PM, Oct 27, 2017

A commutation is one of the many ways presidents can grant clemency and shorten prison sentences. President Barack Obama commuted 1,715 sentences before leaving office — that's more than double his 11 predecessors combined (690).

"America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it's necessary to wage a new all out offensive," former President Richard Nixon said in a 1971 speech.

The drug war, initiated by President Nixon and continued by his successors, led to mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, which disproportionately affected minorities.

As a first-time nonviolent offender, Martinez was sentenced in 1992 to life imprisonment for a number of nonviolent charges related to distributing cocaine.

Between 1980 and 2015, the U.S. prison population quadrupled, and mandatory minimums aided in that increase. Now, it costs an estimated $80 billion to incarcerate criminals annually.

For those reasons, legislators have introduced a bill to "recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, target violent and career criminals and save taxpayer dollars."

In Obama's words, each and every person granted clemency deserved it. But 25 years is a lot of lost time. In that time, he watched his sons grow up from boys to men. 

"Every chance I got, I'd write them, talk to them on the phone," Martinez said. "I'd probably only get to see them every three years. Every three years, they're getting taller, taller, taller, finally to the point where they were taller than me. I never realized how much time I was away until the days that I would see them. I'd realize, 'Man, I've been gone a long time.' They're men now. They went into their teens and then into their 20s. I was just like, 'F---.' You don't get that time back."

But what Martinez can do at 52, is take advantage of the time he does have by celebrating firsts, spending time with his family and helping others just like him.

"I want to garner some kind of attention to the nonviolent, first-time offenders," he says. "... You have these kids walking into the penitentiary at the age of 18, 19, 20 years old, and I've seen it every other week when that bus comes in. ... I'd like to think that I had the same look when I saw the walls of Leavenworth. 'Oh, this is the place they talk about in the movies.' I look at those kids, man, and I can sympathize with them."