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:

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Some 75 years ago, in bombed-out Frankfurt, Germany, a little girl named Marlene Mahta received a sign of hope in the midst of squalor, homelessness and starvation. A CARE Package containing soap, milk powder, flour, blankets and other necessities provided a lifeline through the contributions of average American families. There were even luxuries like chocolate bars.

World War II may have ended, but its devastation lingered. Between 35 and 60 million people died. Whole cities had been destroyed, the countryside was charred and burned, and at least 60 million European civilians had been made homeless. Hunger remained an issue for many families for years to come. In the face of this devastation, 22 American organizations decided to come together and do something about it: creating CARE Packages for survivors.

"What affected me… was hearing that these were gifts from average American people," remembers Mahta, who, in those desperate days, found herself picking through garbage cans to find leftover field rations and MREs to eat. Inspired by the unexpected kindness, Mahta eventually learned English and emigrated to the U.S.

"I wanted to be like those wonderful, generous people," she says.

The postwar Marshall Plan era was a time of "great moral clarity," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE, the global anti-poverty organization that emerged from those simple beginnings. "The CARE Package itself – in its simplicity and directness – continues to guide CARE's operational faith in the enduring power of local leadership – of simply giving people the opportunity to support their families and then their communities."

Each CARE Package contained rations that had once been reserved for soldiers, but were now being redirected to civilians who had suffered as a result of the conflict. The packages cost $10 to send, and they were guaranteed to arrive at their destination within four months.

Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, got involved, and on May 11, 1946, the first 15,000 packages were sent to Le Havre in France, a port badly battered during the war.

Thousands of additional CARE Packages soon followed. At first packages were sent to specific recipients, but over time donations came in for anyone in need. When war rations ran out American companies began donating food. Later, carpentry tools, blankets, clothes, books, school supplies, and medicine were included.

Before long, the CARE Packages were going to other communities in need around the world, including Asia and Latin America. Ultimately, CARE delivered packages to 100 million families around the world.

The original CARE Packages were phased out in the late 1960s, though they were revived when specific needs arose, such as when former Soviet Union republics needed relief, or after the Bosnian War. Meanwhile, CARE transformed. Now, instead of physical boxes, it invests in programs for sustainable change, such as setting up nutrition centers, Village Savings and Loan Associations, educational programs, agroforestry initiatives, and much more.

But, with a pandemic ravaging populations around the world, CARE is bringing back its original CARE packages to support the critical basic needs of our global neighbors. And for the first time, they're also delivering CARE packages here at home in the United States to communities in need.

Community leaders like Janice Dixon are on the front lines of that effort. Dixon, president and CEO of Community Outreach in Action in Jonesboro, Ga., now sends up to 80 CARE packages each week to those in need due to COVID-19. Food pantries have been available, she notes, but they've been difficult to access for those without cars, and public transportation is spotty in suburban Atlanta.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," says Dixon. For example, one of those calls was from a senior diabetic, she remembers, who faced an impossible choice, but was able to purchase medicine because food was being provided by CARE.

Today, CARE is sending new packages with financial support and messages of hope to frontline medical workers, caregivers, essential workers, and individuals in need in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. Anyone can now go to carepackage.org to send targeted help around the world. Packages focus on helping vaccines reach people more quickly, tackling food insecurity, educational disparities, global poverty, and domestic violence, as well as providing hygiene kits to those in need.

From the very beginning, CARE received the support of presidents, with Hollywood luminaries like Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman also adding their voices. At An Evening With CARE, happening this Tuesday, May 11, notable names will turn out again as the organization celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the CARE Package and the exciting, meaningful work that lies ahead. The event will be hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and attended by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Angela Merkel, Iman, Jewel, Michelle Williams, Katherine McPhee-Foster, Betty Who and others. Please RSVP now for this can't-miss opportunity.

On February 19, 2020, a group of outdoor adventurists took a 25-day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. During the trip, they had no cell service and no contact with the outside world. When they ended they ended their journey on March 14, the man who pulled them ashore asked if they had been in touch with anyone else. When the rafters said no, the man sighed, then launched into an explanation of how the globe had been gripped by the coronavirus pandemic and everything had come to a screeching halt.

The rafters listened with bewilderment as they were told about toilet paper shortages and the NBA season being canceled and everyone being asked to stay at home. One of the river guides, who had done these kinds of off-grid excursions multiple times, said that they'd often joke about coming back to a completely different world—it had just never actually happened before.

The rafters' story was shared in the New York Times last spring, but they're not the only ones to have had such an experience.

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
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The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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