Meet the former inmates who lunched with Obama after he shortened their prison stays.

It's one thing for a president to shorten someone's prison sentence. It's another thing entirely to take them out to lunch.

On March 30, 2016, President Obama granted early prison releases to 61 individuals who were serving time for nonviolent drug-related crimes. Over the course of his presidency, he's issued 248 such commutations (sentence reductions) — more than the previous six presidents combined, according to the White House.

But this time, he decided to surprise a group of formerly incarcerated individuals — some of whom had just been released from prison that day, others who had been released in years prior under Presidents Clinton and Bush — at a White House meet-and-greet. "Turns out I've got an opening in my schedule," he told them. "So let's have some lunch."


The president took the group to a nearby restaurant, where he gave them each a chance to share their stories and talk about how to fix the U.S. criminal justice system so that more people like them don't end up spending their entire lives behind bars.

President Obama leads the group to lunch at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

Phillip Emmert, for example, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for methamphetamine charges.

Meth is a major problem in rural Arkansas, where Emmert grew up. His original sentence came with no opportunity for parole, even though it was his first offense and a nonviolent one.

He was granted clemency by President Bush in 2006 after serving 14 years. He found work as a housekeeper at the Iowa City VA soon after. But that's not so common — less than half of ex-convicts find employment in their first year after release, and there are nearly 800 occupations that ban the hire of applicants with criminal records.

President Obama and Phillip Emmert. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Stringer/Getty Images.

Then there's Ramona Brant, who was sentenced to life for conspiracy to sell cocaine.

Her boyfriend was also charged. She confesses that she was aware he was selling drugs, but she denies any active involvement. Like Emmert, this was a nonviolent crime and her first offense.

But a 1984 law laid down strict per-kilo punishments for drug dealers, so the specifics of her case were irrelevant in the eyes of the law.

Brant is also black, and according to the NAACP, African-Americans are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for drugs, even though white Americans use drugs at a rate five times higher.

After 21 years in jail, Brant had her life sentence commuted by Obama in 2015. She walked free on Feb. 1, 2016.

Ramona Brant and President Obama. Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

Serena Nunn was 19 when she, too, was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Like Brant, she says knew what her boyfriend was up to when she dropped him off at meets. But she says her involvement stopped there. Yet, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, she faced more than 15 years behind bars while the drug ring leader — who had prior drug, rape, and manslaughter convictions — got away with only seven years because of a deal with the prosecution.

In 1999, Nunn became the first woman at her federal prison to earn a community college degree. One year later, President Clinton commuted her sentence. And as of 2012, she's a licensed attorney in Georgia.

Serena Nunn (far left) at lunch with the president. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Stringer/Getty Images.

Finally, meet Norman Brown. He was sentenced to life for selling crack cocaine.

Brown did have two prior counts against him for minor offenses, which certainly didn't help the harsh sentencing. But neither did the fact that federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws set in place in the 1980s punished crack cocaine dealers at a rate 100 times harsher than powdered cocaine dealers — despite the fact that crack is just a different form of the same drug. Put another way, the punishment for 5 grams of crack was equal to the punishment for 500 grams of powder cocaine.

And, of course, more than 80% of the prisoners serving time for crack are black, like Norman Brown.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced this ratio to 18-to-1, and Brown was given clemency by President Obama in 2015 after serving 24 years in prison. He's committed himself to working with underprivileged youth in his community to help them avoid the same mistakes he made.

Norman Brown (front right). Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images.

"They're Americans who’d been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars," President Obama said on Facebook. "Simply put, their punishments didn't fit the crime."

In a letter that he sent to each of the ex-convicts who received commutations that day, the president added:

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

President Obama is right: Everyone deserves a second chance. But his lunch dates also brought up a huge, systemic problem.

When I started reading about each of these cases, I was appalled by the trends that emerged. The fact that a one-time drug infraction can destroy someone's life is hard to believe; the fact there are a hundred thousand more stories just like these is equally as depressing.

Consider this: Before mandatory sentencing laws were enacted in 1980, there were about 24,600 incarcerated U.S. citizens. By 2013, that number was nearly nine times higher — and half of those charges are drug-related.

It's like we're spending all of our time and money trying to catch the water leaking from the pipes instead of fixing the leak. Yes, drug use can destroy lives. But so can an obscenely harsh prison sentence. And neither one actually solves the poverty, mental health struggles, addiction, and general sense of desperation that leads to heavy drug use in the first place.

While there are still a lot of problems with the American justice system, it's a step in the right direction that our president is listening to the people most affected by these federal laws. But I hope Obama is listening closely — because we have a long way to go.

Check out the video below of President Obama surprising these formerly incarcerated individuals with a lunch date:

Courtesy of Macy's

Brantley and his snowman

True

"Would you like to build a snowman?" If you asked five-year-old Brantley from Texas this question, the answer would be a resounding "Yes!" While it may sound like a simple dream, since Texas doesn't usually see much snow, it seemed like a lofty one for him, even more so because Brantley has a congenital heart disease.

On Dec. 11, 2019, however, the real Macy's Santa and his two elves teamed up with Make-A-Wish to surprise Brantley and his family on his way to Colorado where there was plenty of snow for him to build his very own snowman, fulfilling his wish as part of the Macy's Believe campaign. After a joy-filled plane ride where every passenger got gift bags from Macy's, the family arrived in Breckenridge, Colorado where Santa and his elves helped Brantley build a snowman.

Brantley, Brantley's mom, and Santa marveling at their snowmanAll photos courtesy of Macy's

Brantley, who according to his mom had never actually seen snow, was blown away by the experience.

"Well, I had to build a snowman because snowmen are my favorite," Brantley said in an interview with Summit Daily. "All of it was my favorite part."

This is just one example of the more than 330,000 wishes the nonprofit Make-A-Wish have fulfilled to bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses since its founding 40 years ago. Even though many of the children that Make-A-Wish grants wishes for manage or overcome their illnesses, they often face months, if not years of doctor's visits, hospital stays and uncomfortable treatments. The nonprofit helps these children and their families replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy and anxiety with hope.

It's hardly an outlandish notion — research shows that a wish come true can help increase these children's resiliency and improve their quality of life. Brantley is a prime example.

"This couldn't have come at a better time because we see all the hardships that we went through last year," Brantley's mom Brandi told Summit Daily.

Brantley playing with snowballs

Now more than ever, kids with critical illnesses need hope. Since they're particularly vulnerable to disease, they and their families have had to isolate even more during the pandemic and avoid the people they love most and many of the activities that recharge them. That's why Make-A-Wish is doing everything it can to fulfill wishes in spite of the unprecedented obstacles.

That's where you come in. Macy's has raised over $132 million for Make-A-Wish, and helped grant more than 15,500 wishes since their partnership began in 2003, but they couldn't have done that without the support of everyday people. The crux of that support comes from Macy's Believe Campaign — the longstanding holiday fundraising effort where for every letter to Santa that's written online at Macys.com or dropped off safely at the red Believe mailbox at their stores, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. New this year, National Believe Day will be expanded to National Believe Week and will provide customers the opportunity to double their donations ($2 per letter, up to an additional $1 million) for a full week from Sunday, Nov. 29 through Saturday, Dec. 5.

There are more ways to support Make-A-Wish besides letter-writing too. If you purchase a $4 Believe bracelet, $2 of each bracelet will be donated to Make-A-Wish through Dec. 31. And for families who are all about the holiday PJs, on Giving Tuesday (Dec. 1), 20 percent of the purchase price of select family pajamas will benefit Make-A-Wish.

Elizabeth living out her wish of being a fashion designer

Additionally, this year's campaign features 6-year-old Elizabeth, a Make-A-Wish child diagnosed with leukemia, whose wish to design a dress recently came true. Thanks to the style experts at Macy's Fashion Office and I.N.C. International Concepts, only at Macy's, Elizabeth had the opportunity to design a colorful floral maxi dress. Elizabeth's exclusive design is now available online at Macys.com and in select Macy's stores. In the spirit of giving back this holiday season, 20 percent of the purchase price of Elizabeth's dress (through Dec. 31) will benefit Make-A-Wish.You can also donate directly to Make-A-Wish via Macy's website.

This holiday season may be a tough one this year, but you can bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses by delivering hope for their wishes to come true.

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The story of Patricia and Leslie "LD" McWaters dying together might have both of those elements, but it is also tragic because they died of a preventable disease in a pandemic that hasn't been handled well. The Michigan couple, who had been married for 47 years, both died of COVID-19 complications on November 24th. Since they died less than a minute apart, their deaths were recorded with the exact same time—4:23pm.

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Courtesy of Macy's

Brantley and his snowman

True

"Would you like to build a snowman?" If you asked five-year-old Brantley from Texas this question, the answer would be a resounding "Yes!" While it may sound like a simple dream, since Texas doesn't usually see much snow, it seemed like a lofty one for him, even more so because Brantley has a congenital heart disease.

On Dec. 11, 2019, however, the real Macy's Santa and his two elves teamed up with Make-A-Wish to surprise Brantley and his family on his way to Colorado where there was plenty of snow for him to build his very own snowman, fulfilling his wish as part of the Macy's Believe campaign. After a joy-filled plane ride where every passenger got gift bags from Macy's, the family arrived in Breckenridge, Colorado where Santa and his elves helped Brantley build a snowman.

Brantley, Brantley's mom, and Santa marveling at their snowmanAll photos courtesy of Macy's

Brantley, who according to his mom had never actually seen snow, was blown away by the experience.

"Well, I had to build a snowman because snowmen are my favorite," Brantley said in an interview with Summit Daily. "All of it was my favorite part."

This is just one example of the more than 330,000 wishes the nonprofit Make-A-Wish have fulfilled to bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses since its founding 40 years ago. Even though many of the children that Make-A-Wish grants wishes for manage or overcome their illnesses, they often face months, if not years of doctor's visits, hospital stays and uncomfortable treatments. The nonprofit helps these children and their families replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy and anxiety with hope.

It's hardly an outlandish notion — research shows that a wish come true can help increase these children's resiliency and improve their quality of life. Brantley is a prime example.

"This couldn't have come at a better time because we see all the hardships that we went through last year," Brantley's mom Brandi told Summit Daily.

Brantley playing with snowballs

Now more than ever, kids with critical illnesses need hope. Since they're particularly vulnerable to disease, they and their families have had to isolate even more during the pandemic and avoid the people they love most and many of the activities that recharge them. That's why Make-A-Wish is doing everything it can to fulfill wishes in spite of the unprecedented obstacles.

That's where you come in. Macy's has raised over $132 million for Make-A-Wish, and helped grant more than 15,500 wishes since their partnership began in 2003, but they couldn't have done that without the support of everyday people. The crux of that support comes from Macy's Believe Campaign — the longstanding holiday fundraising effort where for every letter to Santa that's written online at Macys.com or dropped off safely at the red Believe mailbox at their stores, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. New this year, National Believe Day will be expanded to National Believe Week and will provide customers the opportunity to double their donations ($2 per letter, up to an additional $1 million) for a full week from Sunday, Nov. 29 through Saturday, Dec. 5.

There are more ways to support Make-A-Wish besides letter-writing too. If you purchase a $4 Believe bracelet, $2 of each bracelet will be donated to Make-A-Wish through Dec. 31. And for families who are all about the holiday PJs, on Giving Tuesday (Dec. 1), 20 percent of the purchase price of select family pajamas will benefit Make-A-Wish.

Elizabeth living out her wish of being a fashion designer

Additionally, this year's campaign features 6-year-old Elizabeth, a Make-A-Wish child diagnosed with leukemia, whose wish to design a dress recently came true. Thanks to the style experts at Macy's Fashion Office and I.N.C. International Concepts, only at Macy's, Elizabeth had the opportunity to design a colorful floral maxi dress. Elizabeth's exclusive design is now available online at Macys.com and in select Macy's stores. In the spirit of giving back this holiday season, 20 percent of the purchase price of Elizabeth's dress (through Dec. 31) will benefit Make-A-Wish.You can also donate directly to Make-A-Wish via Macy's website.

This holiday season may be a tough one this year, but you can bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses by delivering hope for their wishes to come true.

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