A 53-year-old Philadelphia man is among the 61 drug offenders whose sentences were commuted by President Obama on Wednesday.
Vernon Harris was serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in October 1995 to one count each of possession of crack cocaine, carrying or using a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking offense, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Before 1995, Harris had three convictions for felony drug-trafficking offenses.
In the case that sent him to prison for life, Harris sold cocaine to undercover officers, and that led to a raid at his home, where officer found drugs, a large amount of money, and a .25-caliber pistol.
Now in custody at the federal correctional institution in Fairton, Cumberland County, N.J., he is expected to be released July 28.
Harris has been acting as his own lawyer for the last 18 years and has filed various motions attempting to have his life sentence reduced or vacated. In his most recent effort, Harris sought to have his sentence reduced following new federal guidelines that eased what were viewed as draconian penalties for drug offenses - including retroactively for older cases.
Prosecutors argued that Harris was not eligible because he was serving a mandatory life sentence and the guidelines did not allow sentence reductions below the original minimum sentence.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III agreed and denied Harris' motion in October.
Separately, Harris sought a commutation from the president through the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department.
The clemency process is important for prisoners who should have their sentences reduced but cannot through the retroactive sentencing guidelines, said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a sentencing reform nonprofit based in Washington.
More than 35,000 federal prisoners are seeking to have their sentences commuted.
Of the 61 drug offenders selected by the White House, more than a third were serving life sentences. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few, including Harris, had also been convicted of gun charges.
Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug offenses, arguing that they lead to excessive punishment.
The latest round of commutations brings to 248 the total number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted - more than the last six presidents combined.