Cracking Open
Michael Short knows he was wrong to sell crack cocaine, but he questions whether he needed 15 years in prison to learn his lesson. Now some of the politicians who helped put him there are wondering, too.

By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, June 1, 2008

ON HIS 18TH DAY OF FREEDOM, Michael Short awakened before dawn. In prison, corrections officers had paced the halls at night, jingling keys and shining flashlights. Now Mike slept fitfully, even in a king-size bed.

It was a damp, gray Tuesday late in February. He slipped on a pinstriped shirt that hid his tattoos, slid his feet into shiny new loafers and rubbed coconut oil into his hair, cut razor-straight at the temples and flecked with gray. He was 36, with a basketball player's long-legged gait and the lined brow of a man well acquainted with consequences. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he nervously knotted a silver-and-white tie that his girlfriend had bought him at Macy's.

On days like this, he wished the past were a room with a door you could close, a place you could walk away from, as he had walked away from prison after President Bush commuted his sentence. But the past wasn't like that, at least not for him. Over breakfast, he practiced the testimony he was scheduled to deliver that afternoon before a congressional subcommittee: My name is Michael Short. I am here because in 1992 I was sentenced for selling crack cocaine. Before that, I had never spent a day in prison. I came from a good family. I had no criminal history. I was not a violent offender. But I was sentenced to serve nearly 20 years. I was 21 years old.

As he navigated traffic from his girlfriend's house in Charles County and boarded the subway to Capitol Hill, he braced himself for the inevitable questions, the scrutiny of his crime, the dissection of his punishment. His commutation had taken half a dozen years to materialize and, by Mike's calculation, had shaved only six months off the time he would have served. He had spent more years in prison than many murderers.

He arrived at the basement room in the Rayburn House Office Building a half-hour early and looked around, taking in the raised dais, the plaque that said "Ways and Means." He might have spent this drizzly morning at the Greenbelt health club where he had recently landed a job as a personal trainer. Instead, he was here, wondering what was meant by the term "majority whip" and hoping that he wouldn't stutter.

The room slowly filled with the most sympathetic crowd he would encounter all day: lawyers, ex-prisoners and advocates who believed that federal crack cocaine laws were unfair and had gathered to lobby for new ones. The subcommittee hearing would not take place until afternoon; this was just a practice session to give Mike and other lobbyists some last-minute pointers. Someone handed him a big red button that said, "CRACK the disparity," a reference to the vast difference in prison terms to which crack and powder cocaine offenders are sentenced. He pinned it to his shirt.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas who has introduced a bill to remedy the disparity, walked to the lectern. An imposing woman in an emerald green suit, she wondered aloud what America's founders would have thought, had they been able to look into the future and see how many times the country fell short of its ideals.

"They set up these models, these principles, that indicated that we had the right of free speech, that we had the right of a trial by our peers," Jackson Lee said, her voice rising. "And for those of us [whose forebears] came here in the bottom of the belly of a slave boat, the 13th and 14th and 15th amendments suggested that there was a road map to freedom in this nation. But we have sometimes lost our way."

She spoke of how, in the Bible, no one stopped to help the beaten, stripped man on the roadside until the Good Samaritan came along. In much the same way, she said, members of Congress had long ignored broken crack cocaine laws that disproportionately affected African Americans. Husbands, brothers and sisters had disappeared from their communities for years over relatively minor drug crimes, she said.

Mike pulled a crumpled tissue from his pocket and wiped his eyes. The packed room felt like church on Sunday morning. As Jackson Lee spoke, people yelled, "Yes!" and "All right now!" When she finished, Mike clapped long and hard.

And then, unexpectedly, someone introduced him. He walked to the lectern and stood there, hunching his shoulders as if he were ashamed of his 6-foot-2-inch frame. His voice was gravelly with emotion.

He began his spiel: his name, his crime -- the distribution of 63 grams of crack cocaine -- the almost-20-year sentence, the 15 years and eight months he'd spent in prison.

"How many?" someone called out, incredulous.

"Fifteen years and eight months of my 19 years," Mike said. He paused, searching for a way to explain without asking for sympathy. He tried to maintain his composure.

"I made a mistake. And it didn't take me 15 years to understand that what I did was wrong. I deserved to go to prison. But I don't feel as though I deserved to go to prison for 15 years."

IN THE SUMMER OF 1986, WHEN MIKE WAS 15, the Boston Celtics selected Len Bias as their first pick in the NBA draft. A Celtics scout compared him to Michael Jordan, and Bias told a reporter that the first thing he planned to buy was a Mercedes. Two days later, he collapsed in his dorm suite at the University of Maryland, dead of a cocaine overdose. The community that had cheered for him staggered like a man punched in the gut. Here was a kid from Prince George's County who had laid claim to the American dream with all the ease of a pro executing a layup. "I can't see why we would lose someone like this," the director of a recreation center where Bias had played as a kid told The Washington Post. "Someone so important to us."

Initial medical reports indicated, incorrectly, that the high concentration of cocaine in Bias's blood suggested that he had died after smoking crack, then the latest drug to hit America's city streets. Made from powder cocaine cooked with baking soda, crack was cheaper than powder, and, because it was smoked, the high was more intense.

Living in Hyattsville, the son of a legal secretary and a car salesman, Mike absorbed the news, but he was too young to make sense of it. Drugs were not a part of his world. His parents had separated when he was a boy, and his mother raised him and his brother and sister in quiet suburban neighborhoods before moving to a neat brick house on Hawaii Avenue in Northeast Washington after Mike graduated from high school. He was a quiet kid, obsessed with basketball. His friends called him a "mama's boy" because he used to meet his mother at the bus stop when she got home from work. "I wouldn't have known what cocaine was if you put it on my dinner plate," he said.

Nevertheless, his world reverberated with Len Bias's loss. At Northwestern High School, Bias's alma mater, Mike played on the varsity basketball team with the star's younger brother Jay. Mike wanted to comfort Jay, who was visibly distraught, but he didn't know what to say.

In Congress, then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat whose Boston constituents couldn't stop talking about Bias's death, saw a political opportunity. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government had waded deeper into the war on drugs, part of a trend spawned by the turmoil of the 1960s and '70s. Bias's death offered a perfect chance to capitalize on the growing public outcry, especially over crack. "The speaker realizes, if the Democrats take the lead on this, if we play it right, maybe we can win the Senate back," Eric E. Sterling said recently. He was assistant counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime in 1986 and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Silver Spring nonprofit that educates the public about criminal justice issues.

O'Neill convened the steering and policy committee of the House Democrats and moved the formation of tougher drug laws to the top of the agenda. Sterling and other staffers were told to draft a law that would punish high-level traffickers, but they didn't know what amount of drugs would qualify someone as "high-level" and, with the midterm election campaign season just a few days away, they didn't have time to determine that, Sterling said. No hearings were held.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established the mandatory minimum drug sentences that remain in effect today. It imposed a five-year mandatory prison term for first-time trafficking of five or more grams of crack or 500 grams of powder, and a 10-year mandatory minimum for first-time trafficking of 50 grams of crack or five kilos of powder. In drug policy circles, this is known as the "100-to-1 drug quantity ratio," and it has hit African Americans hardest because they are more likely to live in the neighborhoods where crack cocaine is used and sold, even though, in absolute numbers, most crack users are white. In 2006, 82 percent of crack offenders sentenced under federal law were African American, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency set up to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts.

In 1988, Congress got even tougher, passing a law that made simple possession of five grams of crack punishable by a mandatory minimum five-year prison term. First-time possession of any amount of any other controlled substance, including powder cocaine, is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in prison. The only exception is flunitrazepan, also known as Rohypnol, the "date rape drug," which carries a maximum three-year penalty for first-time possession.

Five basic suppositions guided lawmakers in setting such high penalties for crack, according to research by the Sentencing Commission.

Crack is extremely addictive, and because crack users needed to get high more frequently and tended to have less money than powder users, they were more likely to engage in criminal behavior to support their addictions, creating at least a perceived link between crack use and violence. Crack was considered especially dangerous, particularly to fetuses. Children were also used as lookouts by dealers and exposed to the drug as addicts. And crack's potency and low price -- about $10 for two small pieces compared with $100 for a gram of powder cocaine in 1986-- meant that almost anyone could afford it.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in late October 1986. The following week, the Democrats took back the Senate. Over the next two decades, the federal prison population would grow from about 38,000 to more than 200,000; more than half the current inmates are drug offenders. The average amount of crack that federal offenders were convicted of trafficking in 2006 was 51 grams, about the weight of a candy bar; their average prison sentence was 10 years, according to the Sentencing Commission.

"If we were sophisticated in the metric system, we would have known that the people we're interested in, like [Colombian Pablo] Escobar, are moving a ton, a million grams," Sterling said. "Are we winning the war on drugs? No. The federal government is wasting the resources."

THE YEAR AFTER LEN BIAS DIED, Mike Short's team at Northwestern won the state championship. He and his teammates stormed the court at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House in jubilation, and some leapt for the rim and held on, shattering a fiberglass backboard. Their joy signaled intense relief. It had been a tough season, with rival players mocking Jay Bias over his brother's drug-induced death and Northwestern players fighting back. Several had been suspended.

Mike, a sophmore, wasn't among them, but in his senior year he was cut from the team over "differences of opinion" with a new coach, he said. His mother met with teachers and administrators, who offered to reinstate him, but Mike refused. "It's my fault for being angry like that, holding resentment," he said. "That's something that still haunts me."

He switched to pickup games on street courts in suburban Maryland, where drug dealers and athletes mingled like mismatched dancing partners. Dealers would sometimes hand out money to winning players or buy them clothes. People noticed Mike's skill and started paying him as much as $500 to play in high-stakes games, he said. He knew drugs were illegal, and his training as an athlete dissuaded him from using them. He says he never tried cocaine and only smoked marijuana once. He didn't need money. "But then some of us would see how easy it is, and it's hard to turn down $1,000 or $2,000 when you don't have to do anything," he said.

His dealing began with casual conversations with people from school, the neighborhood and guys he met on the courts. He wasn't asked to do much -- most of the time, he just made a phone call or delivered a package, often to people he knew and trusted -- and dealing became part of the fabric of his social life. He would go bowling and meet someone else in the business, or arrange a handoff to a friend at a local barbershop. He bought himself stylish new clothes, but he didn't buy a car because he worried that his mother, Shirley Short, would catch on. Even so, when he showed up in a pair of $100 tennis shoes that she hadn't bought for him, when his friends parked their own flashy cars outside, she guessed the truth. About a year before Mike got arrested, his mother told him to stop. He didn't see why he should.

"I was like, Man, it's just too sweet of a deal," he recalled. "There's no violence involved. Why not sell it, make my $500, and go on about my business?"

The violence that was invisible to him was apparent to anyone who read the newspaper or had the misfortune to live in one of the impoverished urban neighborhoods favored by street dealers. In 1989, Washington had 434 homicides, more per capita than any other U.S. city. But Mike didn't frequent open-air drug markets, and he told himself that the cops weren't looking for someone like him. I'm a peon, he thought. They want the guys who are selling thousands and thousands of dollars' worth.

And then he walked into their cross hairs.

The investigation that put him in prison, like the law that kept him there, began with Bias's death. In 1987, Brian Tribble, a former Maryland student and friend of Bias's, went on trial for supplying the cocaine that killed the basketball star. A former player testified that he and three others, including Tribble and Bias, snorted about one-third of a cup of powder cocaine the night they were celebrating Bias's ascension to the Celtics.

Relying heavily on the testimony of former teammates who snorted cocaine with Bias and a 17-year-old with an extensive juvenile record who said he had sold large amounts of cocaine for Tribble, prosecutors built a case that they later acknowledged was largely circumstantial. Tribble was acquitted, the jury foreman explained after the trial, because prosecutors failed to present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that he had any connection to the drugs that killed Bias. Tribble wept when the verdict was read, but his success in beating the charges vaulted him to superstardom in the local drug-dealing community, said J. Andrew McColl, the lead FBI agent on the investigation that led to Mike's arrest. "Brian was Mr. Teflon," McColl said. "Nobody could touch him."

In 1988, the D.C. police and the FBI went after Tribble, who was working with a network of dealers in the Woodridge neighborhood in Northeast. The FBI planned to have undercover agents supply the dealers with cellphones in exchange for crack cocaine and to record their conversations. At the time, cellphones were rare and expensive; you needed good credit to get one, something most drug dealers didn't have.

A few days before Christmas in 1989, an undercover FBI agent showed up to collect a monthly cellphone payment in crack from a dealer named Norman Brown. Brown told the agent to drive over to his "man" and collect the drugs. On this day, his man was Mike Short. Mike handed the agent a paper bag containing 63 grams of crack cocaine. The agent gave him $1,800.

In 1990, after a two-year investigation, federal authorities charged Mike, then 19, and 28 others with selling powder cocaine and crack as part of a sprawling drug ring. Nearly two decades later, McColl called Mike "a very minor player." Mike said he had never been suspended from school. Unlike some of his codefendants, he had worked steadily, including helping his father at Mattress Discounters in Langley Park.

Meanwhile, Brian Tribble agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute powder cocaine, admitting that he and associates had sold more than 110 pounds of drugs in an 18-month period. He was sentenced to 10 years, almost exactly half the length of Mike's crack sentence of 19 years and seven months. In addition to the 63 grams Mike handed to the undercover agent, the court held him accountable for helping to distribute another five kilos of crack, based on witness testimony, which added considerably to his sentence.

AFTER HE WAS FREED, MIKE RETURNED TO WASHINGTON ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 18, 2007, on a Trailways bus from West Virginia, wearing a prison-issue sweat suit and a denim jacket that whipped in the wind. He had ridden since morning, staring out the window, too anxious to sleep. He felt like everyone was looking at him, like they all knew that he had just been released from prison.

He was released just ahead of a stream of crack offenders expected to get out an average of two years early under changes enacted last fall by the Sentencing Commission. About 20,000 federal crack inmates will be eligible for the reductions over the next 30 years. The largest number -- about 1,400 -- were sentenced in the Eastern District of Virginia; 279 were sentenced in Maryland and 269 in the District.

On average, they are male, black and 35 years old, a profile that Mike fit almost exactly, and many will return to neighborhoods scarred by drugs. The Anacostia halfway house where Mike would spend the next six weeks sat across from a rundown apartment complex on a desolate street. It was called Hope Village, but he quickly sized up the neighborhood. "You would find your choice of drugs around there, easy," he said.

He had been behind bars for nearly 16 years, most of it in Petersburg, Va. His mother had died in 1997, and he had gone to her funeral in his khaki inmate's uniform, chained at the waist and ankles, escorted by corrections officers. Mike's father, whom he had seen periodically over the years, also attended the funeral, along with Mike's brother, sister and nephews. His father sometimes visited him in prison, and the two developed a closer relationship, though they were never as close as he and his mother had been.

At first, he was angry -- at the people who'd testified against him, at the government and at his lawyer. Having never been much of a churchgoer, he blamed God. Then somewhere along the way, he grew tired of the repetitive drone of his own rage. "I didn't want to come out of prison being bitter, hating anyone," he said. "I wasn't raised like that, and I didn't want to come home like that."

Vowing not to waste a day, he earned an associate's degree in business management and worked long hours in a prison business office.

"Why did you go to prison for so long?" Mike recalls his nephew asking when he visited. "Did you kill anybody?"

"I sold drugs," Mike told him.

"But you haven't been home since I been living." After a while, he stopped asking.

Another visitor began making the 2 1/2-hour trip from Washington to see him, first with Mike's sister, then on her own. Vanessa Bolden was 5-foot-2, with smooth chestnut skin and the righteous toughness of a woman who had been working since she was 16 and now owned her home and drove a sleek blue Lexus. She and Mike had started dating a few months before he was convicted, but neither thought it would last. She was a 31-year-old single mother with her own apartment and a job at the U.S. Customs Service. He was 21, living with his mother and going to federal court every day for his trial on drug charges.

Vanessa and Mike would go to Hains Point or Rock Creek Park and drink Heinekens and talk. Sometimes they would sit in her car in front of his mother's house, listening to the radio and laughing. If he was nervous about going to prison, she never guessed. "I never had no idea that they would give him 1,001 years," she said.

In the prison visiting room, she was impressed by what she saw. "He started educating himself; he started reading a lot, getting a lot of knowledge," she said. After receiving his management degree, Mike earned his personal trainer certification and completed courses in nutrition and plyometric training.

Vanessa and Mike exchanged letters and talked on the phone. Their relationship began to shape Vanessa's life. She watched her girlfriends fall prey to cheating men. She would hang out with her brothers or go to a happy hour, but she wouldn't let a man buy her a drink. Mike was her excuse. When she went out, she imagined he was at the table next to her. "I always thought Mikey was watching me," she said.

By the time his release date neared, she was going to see him nearly every weekend, getting up at 5 a.m. on Sundays and driving all morning to sit next to him in the crowded visiting room and hold his hand. "I was like, 'What is wrong with me?'?" she said. They talked for hours about their families, their future. When Vanessa woke up troubled in the middle of the night, she would write to him. "He'd write me back and make me feel better. I was like, Damn, if it was that simple, why couldn't I figure it out?"

In 2002, he applied for executive clemency, which is one of the few remedies available to federal prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimums because there is no parole in the federal system. A year earlier, President Bill Clinton had handed out dozens of last-minute pardons and commutations. One of the recipients was Mike's codefendant and childhood friend Derrick Curry. In recent administrations, clemency has become rare. Bush has approved only six commutations since taking office, fewer than any president except his father, who served only one term.

Mike's petition, including letters from prison officials, his sister and family friends, landed in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in early 2002. It would take more than five years to reach the White House, just three blocks away. At first, his request seemed headed for denial, according to documents. Three years passed before then-Pardon Attorney Roger Adams sent a letter to the U.S. attorney in Baltimore and to Judge William Nickerson, who had presided over Mike's case, asking them to weigh in on his clemency petition.

A veteran judge, Nickerson had long been frustrated by the sentencing guidelines that took discretion out of the hands of judges. Mike's case had bothered him for years, so much so that it contributed to his decision to stop handling drug cases. Mike and his codefendants were kids from hard-

working families who "kind of got sidetracked," Nickerson said. "It made it doubly tragic to ship them off to jail." When it came time in 2005 to offer an opinion on Mike's clemency petition, Nickerson endorsed it.

Two years later, on December 11, 2007, the White House announced the commutation. It had been so long that Mike had forgotten he had applied. His unit manager found him eating lunch in the prison cafeteria.

"Are you Michael Short?" he asked.

"Why?" Mike barked. He assumed he was in trouble, though he knew he had done nothing wrong.

"Relax," the unit manager told him. "You got immediate release."

Mike's face broke into a smile. "Oh, really? Can I leave right now?"

When Vanessa learned that he was coming home early, she found herself trembling. "I didn't know what kind of man he really was, as far as living with him," she said.

The night he arrived, he climbed into her car. They sat side by side, just the two of them in silence. She glanced over at him, wondering if this was for real.

WHEN HE GOT OUT OF THE HALFWAY HOUSE THIS PAST FEBRUARY, Mike moved into Vanessa's three-bedroom house in Charles County. Golden cherubs hung on the walls in the bathroom, and a stuffed anteater with a pink ribbon around its neck occupied the overstuffed living room couch. After the constant noise of men and cells, Vanessa's house was quiet and strange. Mike didn't like being alone there. After so long in prison, he felt awkward most places. At the mall, he stumbled when getting on escalators. Electronic gas pumps bewildered him. Vanessa rolled down her window to help: "Baby, push that button over there."

He and the other inmates had fantasized about running the streets when they got out, but Mike found that he didn't even want to leave the house. He and Vanessa talked on the phone a dozen times a day. On Valentine's Day, he made steak and shrimp fried rice and laid roses on their bed. He cooked her breakfast and packed her lunch -- a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a granola bar, a peach. He mopped and vacuumed, washed clothes and painted the laundry room.

In his last years in prison, they had almost broken up when he told her he wanted children. She was in her late 40s and had already raised a son. "I'm not stopping you," she told him then. "But, if you want to do it, then go do it. I can't be a part." When she stopped answering his calls, he repented. "I want to do the right thing," he said. "I want to make her happy."

Now she called him "my blessing," "my heart." He said she was his perfect soul mate. They went to a jewelry store to look at rings and cuddled in the kitchen, sipping Sutter Home rosé while their dinner warmed in the oven. "He is not the average guy, 'cause the average guy's not cooking all that for you," she said.

Mike ordered business cards and printed his résumé, which listed his associate's degree, training and nutrition certificates, as well as his work experience in prison. He applied for jobs at several big health clubs, handing over copies of his commutation bearing the president's signature. When one of the gyms turned Mike down, a supervisor who believed in second chances put in a good word for him. Two weeks later, Mike got the job.

He wanted to work seven days a week. "I have the energy and the motivation for it right now," he said, "and I need the money."

He said nothing to his co-workers and clients about his past, but one day, during a training session, a client asked if he had been in prison. "I knew it, I knew it," she said when he told her. She was a corrections officer. Mike's biceps, swelled from years lifting weights in a prison gym, had given him away.

ON THAT DAMP, GRAY TUESDAY IN FEBRUARY, Mike stood amid the marble columns of the Capitol Rotunda and dialed Vanessa's number on his cellphone. He had spent the morning meeting with a congressman and walking beneath crystal chandeliers and elaborate archways, past a portrait of Joseph Hayne Rainey, the first African American elected to the House of Representatives. Mike had grown up a few miles from the Capitol, but he had never been there. Now he told Vanessa how beautiful it was.

Shortly after Mike left the halfway house, an advocate from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that lobbies for fair and proportionate sentencing, asked for his help. Members of Congress had proposed a handful of bills to reduce or remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and FAMM wanted Mike to tell his story on the Hill.

He was working long days at the health club, and he couldn't afford a suit to wear to the hearing, but felt he owed it to the men he had left behind in prison. By now, even some legislators who had voted for the 1986 mandatory minimum laws expressed regret. One former supporter, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, had recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the sentencing disparity could not be justified: "Our intentions were good, but much of our information turns out not to be as good as our intentions."

It is true, medical experts say, that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine; smoking and injecting offer quicker routes to the bloodstream than snorting, and the faster, more intense highs lead to an increased rate of addiction. But statistics have not borne out fears of widespread violence associated with crack. In 2005, only 6 percent of powder cocaine offenses and 10 percent of crack offenses involved violence or a threat of violence, according to the Sentencing Commission. The predicted "crack babies" did not materialize, either. Although some early studies of individual children suggested that crack had devastating effects on fetuses, long-term case studies showed that alcohol is more dangerous to a fetus than any form of cocaine, including crack, and has affected a far greater number of children, said Harolyn Belcher, a neuro-developmental pediatrician and director of research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Family Center in Baltimore.

"This was one of the few times when [Congress] really rushed to complete and formulate the sentencing before the science was really there," Belcher said.

Over the years, some lawmakers had tried to lessen crack penalties, but the political moment had never been right. Then, last fall, the wind seemed to be shifting. The Sentencing Commission, which had long criticized the disparity, proposed the guideline changes that made thousands of crack offenders eligible for reduced sentences. Two Supreme Court rulings allowed federal judges a measure of freedom in drug sentencing, permitting them to exercise greater leniency if they felt the circumstances demanded it. And amid it all, Bush commuted Mike's sentence.

After the morning practice session and lunch in a congressional cafeteria, Mike entered the hearing room, calming his nerves and distracting himself from what was coming by replaying in his head a basketball game he had seen recently on TV. The cameras from C-SPAN swiveled toward him and the other witnesses seated at a long table planted with microphones. Mike was the only one without a law degree.

Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, banged the gavel. He had proposed a bill to close the disparity, and he urged members of Congress to help end "two decades of legal discrimination."

"There is certainly no sound basis for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of five grams of crack, when you could get probation for possessing a ton of powder," Scott said.

Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chair of the Sentencing Commission, ran down the statistics. In 2007, he said, crack sentences were about 50 percent longer than powder sentences. "The commission believes there is no justification for the current statutory penalty scheme for powder and crack cocaine offenses," he said.

In the weeks before the hearing, Attorney General Michael Mukasey had spoken forcefully against the Sentencing Commission's decision to make the guideline changes retroactive, saying that "nearly 1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide." Gretchen Shappert, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, had come to present the Justice Department's position.

She said that her career had been "defined by the ravages of crack cocaine." She spoke about open-air drug markets, people sleeping in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets, dealers recruiting kids to sell drugs. "We continue to believe that a variety of factors fully justify higher penalties for crack offenses," Shappert said. "It has been said, and certainly it has been my experience, that whereas powder cocaine destroys an individual, crack cocaine destroys a community."

Mike listened, the muscles in his forehead tightening. He sipped his water. When it was his turn to speak, his voice was low and scratchy. "To be clear, I know that what I did was wrong," he read from his prepared testimony. "I sold illegal drugs, and I deserved to be punished. But what I did and who I was did not justify the sentence I received . . .

"I have heard some of the comments some people in positions of power have made about crack cocaine prisoners -- that we are violent gang members and that this is why our sentences have to be so much longer. I am not that person, and most of the people that I leave behind in prison aren't, either."

When the testimony was over, Scott asked whether it was true that many offenders eligible for reduced sentences were already nearing the end of their prison terms.

"Many of them, that would be the case. Mr. Short's situation is not unique," said Reggie B. Walton, a federal judge in Washington who was seated a few chairs down from Mike. "And I think it's just a waste of the taxpayers' money to keep somebody like Mr. Short locked up for as long as he was locked up. I'll be the first to tell him that he should have been punished. But to keep somebody locked up for as long as we kept him locked up, who could have come back into the community and been a positive contributor to society, I think is a loss to the community where he comes from."

People in the audience began to clap, and then, like a dam breaking, Mike hunched his shoulders and burst into tears.

MIKE STOOD BEHIND THE COUNTER at the health club in Greenbelt. It was a March Saturday, one of the busiest days of the week, and he was the only one there. This was his chance to score new clients and build experience, and he had been looking forward to it.

A woman approached him. She told him she wanted a personal trainer, but only if he could promise her that she would lose 20 pounds by May. In prison, Mike had become something of a moral hardliner. He knew some trainers who would have taken her money and told her what she wanted to hear, but he wasn't one of them. "First and foremost, I'm not going to promise you nothing," he says he told her. It would depend on how disciplined she was during her workouts, he explained, and what she ate when she wasn't at the gym.

"Well, how much is it per hour?"

The sessions were priced in packages, not by the hour. He looked for a calculator.

"You ought to know that!"

"Miss, I don't work in sales. I'm a personal trainer."

"Well, I want to talk to somebody else."

"You are free to talk to whoever you want to talk to."

She turned and stormed out, Mike said.

When he walked out to the parking lot at the end of his shift, Mike thought, I don't need any more days like this. But the truth was, apart from computer glitches and the occasional cranky client, Mike loved being a personal trainer. The main problem was money. He had hoped to make from $12,000 to $18,000 in his first six months of freedom, and he was nowhere close. He was paid $15 for each hour-long training session, but the club took nearly three times that much. "It's robbery," he said. "You getting paid peanuts for doing all the work."

His first paycheck had been for $17, but recently his biweekly pay had risen to $266. He quickly spent it on gas, an oil change, fixing a punctured tire and paying his and Vanessa's cellphone bills. He had planned to take over their shared bills one by one, paying them in ascending order until they were sharing costs equally. But on this day he had $15 in his bank account.

His framed training certificates still hung on the wall in the downstairs rec room, but he felt his dream slipping away. Vanessa paid every time they went out. He tried to make up for it by cooking and cleaning, but he had his pride. "It's got to be something better than this," he said.

One morning in March, he didn't get up to make Vanessa breakfast or pack her lunch. "I'm tired," he told her. He rolled over and slept until after she had left for work. A little later, frustrated and near tears, he sat at the computer, searching the Internet for openings at Safeway, Giant, FedEx and the post office. "I just got to be patient," he told himself, his voice breaking.

That afternoon, he was washing dishes in the kitchen when Vanessa called to say that she would be home soon, and she was starving. She asked him to put some salmon in the oven, and maybe make some rice.

"What kind of rice you want me to make, Vanessa?" he asked.

"Baby, when you talk like that, I know you don't want to do it."

Mike laughed. "You trying to read me through the phone now?" He took the fish out of the refrigerator.

"Get to cooking, man. I'm hungry."

"Relax already. I got you."

A few minutes later, she called back. "Do you miss me?"

"Only on Thursdays and Saturdays. I don't miss you today."

"All right, don't forget you have to heat the oven up first and then let that fresh salmon cook for 30 minutes."

Mike had already put the fish into the oven. "Are you going to let a true player do this, or what? Please!"

He had learned to cook and clean from his mother. She assigned him and his siblings chores, but because Mike was an early riser, he often ended up doing his brother and sister's chores as well, he said. In Vanessa's house, he would turn on the music and lose himself in the repetitive strokes of a mop on a tile floor. Cooking also relaxed him.

He had been playful on the phone, but after he hung up, his mood darkened. He took down a box of cornbread mix and buttered a pan. He wore long nylon shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and black slippers. He seemed too big for the room, with its cloth lilies in a pot by the sink.

"I don't normally curse," he said. "I know I [expletive] up. I should have never went to prison . . . I know that this is not where I should be at this point in my life, 36 years old, struggling. I shouldn't."

He was making his mother's macaroni and cheese. He poured the pasta into a buttered pan, shook on black pepper, laid on slices of cheese and poured milk and eggs over the top.

Outside, the neutral-colored houses with their slate blue and burgundy shutters stood quiet in the middle of the day, their numbered parking spaces empty. He and Vanessa were going out that night, and he hadn't found another job. "Before I know it, I'll have to go back to work tomorrow." He sighed. "I didn't even really do nothing."

MIKE'S CONCERNS ABOUT MONEY SEEMED BLISSFULLY REMOTE as he climbed a flight of stairs at the Verizon Center one Saturday in March and settled into the second-to-last row to watch Duke play West Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament. He had dreamed of going to an NCAA game since he was a kid, and now his friend and codefendant Derrick Curry, who also had been freed by presidential decree, sat beside him.

Derrick wore a gray sweat suit and ate fried chicken off a cardboard tray, and Mike leaned forward expectantly as they waited for the game to begin.

Mike had been a Duke fan since he was 13. He despised West Virginia. He had spent the last year of his prison sentence in the state, which had no professional team, and corrections officers cheered raucously for their college players.

"I hope we beat them by 50," he said.

West Virginia dominated from the start. A Duke player sped down the court heading for the hoop and missed.

"He can't shoot," Derrick said.

"He can't shoot," Mike agreed. "A wide-open shot there! No guard. He's supposed to make that."

Mike leaned forward, hands crossed at the wrists, palms on his knees. As people shuffled past with trays of pretzels and kettle corn, West Virginia scored again. Mike shook his head. A Duke player dribbled the length of the court, rose to the basket and fumbled the shot. "Please, man!" Mike yelled. "I don't understand! That's unreal, man!"

The game went on, but Mike furrowed his brow. If anyone understood the consequences of a missed opportunity, it was him. As he and Derrick sat in the Verizon Center, Congress was considering seven bills that would reduce or remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, but other issues took priority: the teetering economy, the presidential race, Gen. David Petraeus talking about the effects of the troop surge in Iraq. It was, and still is, hard to know when or whether anything would change.

When the clock ran out, West Virginia had upset Duke, 73-67, in the day's first game. Mike had been paid on Friday, but he rolled his eyes as he handed over $5 for an ice cream. On the way back to his seat, an usher eyed his cone. "It's good," he told her, "but it cost too much." As Purdue and Xavier chased each other in the second game, Mike and Derrick sat as silent as boys absorbed in their ice cream, biting into the cones wrapped in paper sleeves decorated with stars and stripes.

THE SKY WAS STILL DARK WHEN MIKE LOCKED THE DOOR of Vanessa's house behind him. He wore black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt and lugged a large gym bag and a gallon jug of water. In the burgundy Nissan that Vanessa had lent him, he navigated the streets at a crawl, flashing his turn signals even though the neighborhood was deserted. The prospect of a routine traffic stop filled him with dread. Given his record, he worried that even a minor violation might end with him face down on the asphalt surrounded by dogs.

It was just after 4 a.m., and a thin crescent moon hung overhead. Mike liked this time of day, before the sun rose and rush-hour traffic clogged the highways. The soul classic "Natural High" played on the radio, and he leaned back in his seat and stared out at the dark road.

He was on his way to a new job that promised everything he'd hoped for when he left prison. A week earlier, he had quit his job at the health club. His new employer, Getem Tight Fitness, rented a mirrored ground-floor studio in an expansive home in a Prince George's County subdivision of mansions and landscaped lawns.

Mike was making $25 an hour to train a small but dedicated clientele, almost twice the rate of his previous job. For once, his past had not hurt him. The gym's manager, Richard Gartmon, had spent 10 years in prison on federal money laundering and fraud charges. He and Mike had met years earlier in prison, and Mike got the job right away.

The streets were silent as he pulled into an empty cul-de-sac and switched off the engine. A few minutes later, another trainer parked beside him. Mike lifted his bag and water jug from the trunk and followed her down a brick walkway behind a nearby house.

Inside, he greeted his first clients, a handful of smiling, middle-aged women in black workout suits. Red and green mats went down on the wood floors, and the iPod speakers blared Gwen Stefani. Mike changed into a shiny new Adidas shirt and pants that Richard had given him and stood at the front of the room to lead the day's first exercise class.

"Feet together, hands together, rotate to the right first," he called, spinning his torso. He didn't smile, but the furrows in his brow faded, and his face shone. He led the class through leg raises -- "Do not let the feet hit the ground!" -- and minute-long side-plank exercises that left several women sweating and groaning. One collapsed on her mat.

"Stomach on fire?" Mike asked.

"Yes!" a woman called out.

"That's what I like."

A man named Ray Smith stepped uncertainly into the gym, guided by his wife. A church deacon and an operations manager for a law firm, he had recently lost his eyesight to diabetes. Mike turned the class over to another instructor and, with an arm around Ray's waist, gently escorted him to a weight room in back.

"We did 10 pounds last time, right?" he asked. Ray nodded. Mike carefully placed the weights in the older man's hands and counted under his breath. "Good, good," Mike told him. "Fantastic."

His next client was a man with a shaved head and a peace sign tattooed on one muscled arm. Mike strapped on weightlifting gloves and worked out alongside him. A 38-year-old owner of a legal services company, Darnell Self sweated at the pull-up bar. "Keep pushing!" Mike told him. "Two more. Good money, man, good money!"

They did one-arm rolls, Darnell lifting 50 pounds, Mike 65. The room grew hot, the mirror fogged. Mike loaded weights onto barbells. Darnell looked doubtful. "That 90's not for me," he said. "I mean, one day I think I'll be there . . ."

"My bad," Mike told him, switching the weights. "I normally work out with 120."

Darnell picked up the barbells, grimacing. "Do it till it burns," Mike told him.

"It's already burning."

"That's how you do it. You're going to have forearms like Popeye."

Darnell groaned and dropped the weights. He stood panting.

"Last set," Mike told him.

Finally, Darnell laid the weights down. He tried to clasp Mike's hand, but he was too weak. "I was like a girl, man," he said, laughing. "I couldn't even really give you five."

Outside, the sun had risen. Mike stepped onto the brick walkway. Years ago, before the big houses came up, he and his brother used to drive out here with a carload of friends after the movies. It was all woods then, and they went joyriding and chased one another through the trees screaming about Jason, the hockey-masked killer from "Friday the 13th."

Now he stood still, gazing into the trees. There was no escaping the past, nor any way to separate the crooked pathways of his own personal history from whatever lay ahead. It was 7:36 a.m. The next wave of clients would be there soon. Mike turned and walked back into the gym.

Vanessa M. Gezari is a writer who lives in Washington. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company