GREENVILLE, Ill. — From the very start, Scott Walker refused to believe he'd die in prison.
Arrested and jailed at 25, then sent to prison two years later, Walker couldn't imagine spending his life behind bars for dealing drugs. But the years passed, his appeals failed and nothing changed.
Now, after 17½ years, Walker may have his best shot at freedom. The Obama administration — responding to mounting concerns about decades of harsh penalties and overcrowded prisons — recently announced it will consider clemency for possibly thousands of non-violent federal inmates, most of them drug offenders.
Walker hopes this new offer holds the key to his cell door.
His lawyers are optimistic, too, noting in a July letter to the Justice Department that he meets all six criteria for possible release, including serving a sentence that would have been substantially lower if imposed today. They also have support from an unlikely corner: Walker's trial judge, who has urged the president to commute the sentence to 20 years.
Scott Walker's story reflects a debate over decades of get-tough laws that have jammed America's prisons with drug offenders and produced a growing outcry for sentencing reform. The trickiest question: How do you make sure the punishment fits the crime?
Walker says he knows he should have paid a price for what he did.
But, "Is there mercy for people who have made mistakes?" he asks, sitting in federal prison here in southern Illinois. "I believe everyone deserves a second chance."
Walker attributes his drug dealing to immaturity and recklessness.
"You feel like you're invincible, that you're never going to grow old," says Walker, who looks a decade younger than 42.
Growing up in southern Illinois, Walker started using marijuana around age 14, then graduated to meth. He played guitar in a band, and drugs, he says, were an accessory to his rock-'n'-roll lifestyle.
"Scott was a very strong-willed young man," says Keith Shelton, his stepfather. "He felt like most kids do. ... You're made out of steel. You're never going to get caught."
By his late teens, when his family moved to Arizona, Walker began trafficking marijuana, meth and LSD back to Illinois, where he funneled his profits into his $350-to-$400-a-week meth habit. He became part of a loose-knit ring, sometimes selling drugs, sometimes enlisting others, mostly childhood friends.
Nabbed as part of a drug conspiracy in 1996, Walker saw his troubles quickly worsen.
He didn't cooperate with authorities, he says, because he didn't want his friends to suffer. Informal plea discussions went nowhere. Unaware he faced life, he went to trial, despite overwhelming evidence against him. Then his lawyer withdrew because of a conflict of interest. When a public defender took over, the window for requesting a plea had closed.
Walker, later described by the judge as a middleman in the ring, was the only one to receive life. Sentencing guidelines added years for aggravating factors, including his organizing role and the quantity of drugs.
The kingpin and supplier, a two-time drug felon who cooperated and testified against Walker, served about five years.
By the time Walker was sentenced, the nation was already reassessing two decades of stiff, punitive drug laws.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the "war on drugs" had escalated. State and federal lawmakers, fed up with rising crime rates, increasing street violence and growing concerns about drug abuse, responded with new fixed, severe sentences.
In 1986, with the crack epidemic ravaging big cities, Congress passed the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act that imposed mandatory minimums for nearly all drugs.
"The only thing was 'How tough can we be?'" says Eric Sterling, who helped draft the bill as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The general sentiment was the public wants it and this is what we should do." Policymakers thought "if we punish, we can smash the supply," he adds. "There wasn't any real understanding this was a flawed premise."
But starting in the '90s, there were deepening reservations about the strategy. Judges began speaking out about inflexible sentences. A series of court rulings and new laws gave them new leeway. More recently, there has been another shift, especially on the local level.
Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states — many facing tight budgets and overcrowded prisons — took some steps to ease their drug laws, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
On the federal level, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged drug sentencing reform, though proposals have stalled in Congress.
The Justice Department's clemency review — focusing on non-violent offenders— is part of a larger plan to ease the bloated federal prison system, where nearly half the inmates are serving time for drugs. It also aims to scale back stringent penalties and address disproportionately tough sentences imposed on black offenders during the 1980s crack epidemic.
Included in Walker's petition is a 2011 letter from Judge J. Phil Gilbert, an appointee of President George H. W. Bush., who has called the life term he had to impose in 1999 "excessive and disproportionate." He also praised Walker as "an example of the human spirit at its strongest." Walker's lawyers have urged his sentence be commuted to 20 years.
If the petition is granted and he's given credit for good behavior while incarcerated, Walker could be released soon.
His family is counting on that.
"I just keep having hope that something will be done," says his daughter, Rae'le, who was 4 when he was locked up and is about to turn 22.
Walker occupies his time reading, writing music — he's in a prison band called Ball and Chain — and taking trade courses. "I always wanted to better myself and educate myself more," he says. "I just wanted to make sure that I didn't become a worse person by being in prison."
He ponders life on the other side, fully expecting there will be adjustments returning to a world he left behind decades ago.
"I have to remind myself that not everything is so easy," he says. "I try to stay grounded and think about once I'm released."
"If I'm released."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.