Editor Update: President Barack Obama offered clemency to two Latinas, Cintheia Denise Parra and Chela H. Urbina, on May 5, 2016.
Mass incarceration obliterates Latino families. Today, one-in-28 Latino children can expect to grow up with an incarcerated parent, leaving them facing many challenges, including a greater probability that they, too, will end up behind bars. Across U.S. prisons, it’s common to hear incarcerated mothers cry and scream because of the news that their child has been hurt or killed through gangs and drug involvement. I know this because I am an incarcerated mother.
My name is Rita Becerra, and I have spent the last 22 years in a federal prison in Texas, apart from my children who are now grown with kids of their own. I was no different from many other Latinas at the time of my incarceration. I was a devoted, single mother who was working two jobs to make ends meet when I met my then-boyfriend, who soon became my codefendant when he began to sell drugs. I financially profited from his criminal activity, so a judge sentenced me to 27 years behind bars—a harsher sentence than the one he received for his direct involvement in the crime. Unfortunately, many incarcerated women share my story and became justice-involved due to criminal activity initiated by their partners.
As a result of this injustice, I strongly believe that Latinos must be equally considered for clemency. To date, President Barack Obama has never granted clemency to a single Latina. On the whole, Latinos encounter many barriers to applying for clemency. For example, federal clemency applications are only in English, making them inaccessible to Spanish-speakers. Even more, some Latinos are discouraged from applying for clemency because many of them—like me—are subject to deportation after serving their time.
Incarceration is an ordeal of struggle and pain. It is a waste of money for the government and a waste of life for the imprisoned individual. While I’ll be going home next year, I am taking the pain of many of my friends who have died here with me, friends like Luisa Figueroa, who, like me, received an outrageously harsh sentence for what she believed was due to her Latina heritage. Figueroa was probably right, as studies show that Latinos are more likely to be incarcerated and receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes. This is why we need fair solutions that solve mass incarceration and allow us to reunite with our families.
Clemency, or the power of the president or state governor to reduce a sentence, is one such solution. Here, just four of the numerous incarcerated Latino parents and children who have been devastated by this country’s criminal justice system and who should be considered for clemency:
1. Josephine “Josie” Ledezma: Josie is a California mother of three children and nine grandchildren who has served 24 years of a life sentence in federal prison. She was sentenced in 1992 on charges of conspiracy to transport cocaine and aiding and abetting for agreeing to give an envelope of money to someone on behalf of her brother. Even though she was a first-time offender and her involvement was minimal, she was charged as a leader in the conspiracy and received several enhancements. Josie experienced what many women charged with non-violent drug crimes encounter: their minimum involvement in the crimes means they cannot cooperate or plea a bargain with prosecutors because they do not have the necessary knowledge to implicate others. Josie, who is remorseful, has missed critical moments in the lives of her children. She hopes that she will be released soon and make up for lost time by being the best grandmother to her grandchildren. Despite the hardships, Josie has many achievements to her name, including the completion of more than 5,400 hours in a training program for the Department of Labor and participating in nearly every course offered by the Bureau of Prisons. Learn more about Josie.
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