Pot prisoner sentenced to life before Trump pardon is back in custody
In 2010, a federal judge sentenced Tony DeJohn to life plus 10 years on a non-violent marijuana charge. Because this was DeJohn’s third marijuana-related conviction, the judge was required by law to impose the maximum sentence available. He was only 31 years old.
Eleven years later, DeJohn, originally from upstate New York but locked in high-security establishments in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Colorado, obtained clemency from then-President Donald Trump. . He was released from prison on January 20, 2021.
But today, DeJohn is back in federal custody. The 47-year-old will be spending the next six months in a halfway house in Pennsylvania, according to court records reviewed by The Daily Beast, but not because he broke new laws.
In the United States today, there are prisoners serving draconian sentences for non-violent marijuana offenses, many of them in states where cannabis is now legal. The issue is surreal for Craig Cesal, a marijuana lifer who has also been granted leniency, who described watching – from the confines of a prison cell while making life for pot – a 60 minutes segment on the booming legal marijuana industry. Cesal, a trained “prison attorney” who now works for the nonprofit Last Prisoner project, defended DeJohn and other pot-lifers and helped DeJohn with money when he returned home for the first time.
“I’m here in Illinois where we have recreational marijuana stores all over the place,” Cesal told The Daily Beast. “But since this is still a federal crime and I’m on probation, could I walk into any of these stores and buy marijuana, which would be legal under US law? Illinois? This is in fact a federal crime and would subject me to five years in federal prison as a violation of my supervised release.
Other violations that can send someone back to jail include things like breaking the curfew, failing a probation appointment, or failing a drug test.
Before being finally released in January, DeJohn had been denied release on two previous occasions. And while his prison record was not impeccable, DeJohn – who received rave reviews from his prison labor supervisors – was only drafted for four offenses, only one of which could be considered “Serious,” his federal advocate wrote in a June 2020 motion to gush DeJohn on compassionate grounds. (This was denied.) “Additionally, DeJohn has not committed a disciplinary violation since 2016, over four years ago. All of this suggests that DeJohn is aging without a recurrence. (Older offenders are much less likely to reoffend than younger ones, according to the US government’s own data.)
Eight months later, DeJohn was released. However, he will be under the supervision of a federal probation officer for the next 10 years.
Since his release, DeJohn had fully complied with the terms of his probation, his lawyer wrote in a June 2021 petition asking that DeJohn be allowed to move to North Carolina. But because he had been away for so long, DeJohn was struggling to rebuild his life in downtown New York, according to the filing. His only friends in the area were either people who had already been sentenced or people who were not necessarily “committed to [living] law-abiding lives, ”he said, adding that DeJohn, who had worked in construction before being fired, had struggled to find stable employment now that he had a criminal record.
“Fortunately, he has been offered construction work in the Raleigh, North Carolina area,” the motion reads. “His potential employer … offered to host Mr. DeJohn until he could afford his own place.”
According to his lawyer, DeJohn made numerous “informal attempts” to get approval from the probation office to move, but “was met with indifference.”
“Mr. DeJohn is committed to building a law-abiding life,” the motion concluded. “Allow him to relocate away from his previous relationships in central New York and to a location that offers stable employment and influences positive results will help ensure their successful transition into the community. ”
In early May, DeJohn’s probation officer showed up at his upstate New York home for an unannounced visit. The officer saw a GMC Yukon parked in DeJohn’s driveway and asked who it belonged to. DeJohn said it belonged to a friend of his wife’s.
When the parole office then performed a DMV check on the truck’s license plate, they discovered that it was not registered in the name of a friend of DeJohn’s wife, but a friend of DeJohn named Michael Hirsh.
Hirsh had loaned the vehicle to DeJohn shortly after his release, so he could get around, Cesal said. When someone goes away for a decade, “free world” relationships are often abandoned, Cesal said.
“When you get out of prison, think about who your friends have been for the past 10 years,” Cesal said. “Who is he going to lean on and say, ‘Hey, help me with a car,’ other than his friends he had before his arrest? You know, a lot of people in prison come from pretty poor families.
Hirsh had been one of DeJohn’s 14 co-defendants in 2005, although unlike DeJohn, a jury acquitted Hirsh of all charges. Fifteen years later, Hirsh was convicted by the state of criminal possession of third-degree marijuana, meaning he was caught with eight ounces or more and sentenced to probation. In June 2021, more than a month after the pot was legalized by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Oswego County Probation Office raided Hirsh’s residence and seized some 50 plants of marijuana on the property.
On June 17, DeJohn’s probation officer seized his cell phone “on reasonable suspicion that he associated with convicted felon, Michael S. Hirsh,” according to the government. “An examination of DeJohn’s cell phone revealed that DeJohn and Hirsh had been in daily communication since his release from imprisonment and were associating in person at each other’s home or within the community,” he continues. “Further, examination of the offender’s cell phone revealed that DeJohn communicates regularly by text message to several federal inmates and sends money to their commissioner accounts at the Bureau of Prisons.”
Of course he did, Cesal said, explaining: “You know, it’s the people who supported him to make sure he didn’t get beaten in prison.”
A month later, DeJohn admitted to having been in contact with Hirsh as well as with “BOP inmates with whom he was accommodated during his period of incarceration”. However, DeJohn had said on his written monthly surveillance report form that he “did not associate with a known criminal.” DeJohn had also not informed his probation officer that he had moved from the house he shared with his wife to his parents’ house about 20 minutes away.
“The probation office recommends that the offender be placed in a federal residential reintegration center for a period of six months following his recent actions,” the file said.
DeJohn is currently not allowed to have a cell phone and has yet to be granted telephone privileges at the facility he now lives in, Cesal said. James Egan, DeJohn’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
“As for Tony, is he really a threat to society? said Cesal. “Did anything they cited in this supervised release violation show that he was a threat to anyone?” No, that’s how it is [marijuana] load. You know, have you ever heard of someone force-feeding someone marijuana? No, people come and ask.
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