THE BLOG

President Bush Commutes John Forte's Sentence: A Close Friend is Coming Home

12/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was sitting in my cubicle sorting through business plans at my venture capital firm when I got the call that would change my life. John Forte, had been arrested on drug charges. Many of you may know him as the Grammy-award winning producer of The Fugees 1996 album, The Score. But to me he was just my dear friend from Phillips Exeter. Nothing prepares you for the moment you hear that someone you love has been arrested. The uncertainty, the shock, your imagination takes you to the worst places. As a girl from Fairfield County, Connecticut, who had attended Exeter and then Princeton, worrying about the consequences of drugs meant taking care of a friend or two in college who delved a little too deeply into the party circuit. Never did I have to consider the legal consequences of drugs. The next year during John's trial preparation would find me devouring everything I could possibly find on what my friend could possibly be facing. It wasn't good.

The year ahead was full of anxiety. Wanting the trial to just be over already, but also knowing that the end could mean the beginning of a long prison sentence -- a reality hanging over all of our heads, but rarely said out loud as we lived in fear of that very real possibility. It was during that year that I learned about mandatory minimums, asset forfeiture, and the inherent racism of the drug war that meant John -- an African-American from Brooklyn -- would likely not face a jury of his peers when standing trial in Houston, Texas -- a place he had never set foot. I also learned about various organizations trying to end these failed policies that had translated into countless individuals wasting away in our country's criminal justice system. The Drug Policy Alliance was one of those organizations and before too long I found myself walking into their San Francisco office asking how I could help -- feeling the need to do anything and everything to help my friend. That initial meeting led to a job and the most important work I have done in my life.

On September 6, 2001 -- 5 days before September 11 -- John was convicted on conspiracy to distribute large quantities of narcotics. He would certainly be facing at least 10 years because of the quantity involved, although he had no prior record. The prosecutor asked for 18 because John didn't take the plea and forced the government to go to trial. Because he had exercised his constitutional right to a trial by jury, he was going to be punished beyond the requirement. The judge ultimately settled on 14 -- a lifetime as far as we were concerned. I had been in Houston right before the jury decided the verdict and the last thing John said to me was, "I'll see you at your wedding," which was a month away.

Two days ago, I received a text that left me as speechless as that phone call did eight years ago. "I just heard from Ben. President Bush commuted John's sentence." This time I was driving home having just picked up my elder son from preschool. After confirming the news with his mother, the next hours were filled with calls, texts, emails -- even Facebook updates -- as those near and far from John connected to celebrate the news. A lot has changed. Waking up the next morning, I still couldn't quite believe that it was true -- that in the coming weeks I would be reunited with my friend -- embracing him, hearing his voice, and introducing him to my two sons, whom he has only known through letters and photos.

John's lucky. He has an amazing network of family and friends who never forgot about him during his incarceration. He was really lucky that one of his closest supporters was someone who could thankfully leverage their celebrity status to lobby the right senators and plead for his release. As I sit here still in shock that John will soon be home, I can't help but think about the thousands of individuals whose well deserving cases weren't considered for a pardon or commutation. Those people whose family and friends will continue to wait and wonder when they will next be able to hold their father, brother, wife or daughter. It will only be when our country -- our citizens and our politicians -- find the will to end this crazy drug war that has caused more pain, grief, and suffering than the drugs could ever do on their own. It's time.

Camilla Norman Field was the Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Alliance San Francisco office.