In 2010, a federal judge sentenced Tony DeJohn to life plus 10 years on a nonviolent marijuana charge. Because it was DeJohn’s third conviction, the judge was required by law to impose the maximum penalty available. He was just 31 years old.
Eleven years later, DeJohn, who is from Upstate New York but had been locked up in high-security facilities in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Colorado, was granted clemency by then-President Donald Trump. He was released from prison on January 20, 2021.
But today, DeJohn is back in federal custody. The now 47-year-old will be spending the next six months in a Pennsylvania halfway house, according to court filings reviewed by The Daily Beast—but not because he broke any new laws.
In the United States today, there are prisoners serving draconian sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses, many of them in states where cannabis is now legal. The issue is a surreal one for Craig Cesal, a marijuana lifer whom Trump also granted clemency, who described watching—from the confines of a prison cell while doing life for pot—a 60 Minutes segment on the booming legal marijuana industry. Cesal, a skilled “jailhouse lawyer” who now works for the nonprofit Last Prisoner Project, has advocated for DeJohn and other pot lifers and helped DeJohn out with some cash when he first got home.
“I’m here in Illinois, where we have recreational marijuana stores all over the place,” Cesal told The Daily Beast. “But since it is still a federal crime, and I am on supervised release, could I walk into one of those stores and buy some marijuana, which would be legal under Illinois law? It’s actually 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 a person back to jail include things like breaking curfew, missing a probation appointment, or failing a drug test.
Before he was finally let go in January, DeJohn had been denied release twice before. And while his record in prison wasn’t spotless, DeJohn—who was given glowing reviews by his prison work-detail supervisors—was only written up for four infractions, of which just one could be considered “serious,” his federal defender wrote in a June 2020 motion to get DeJohn sprung on compassionate grounds. (It was denied.) “Moreover, DeJohn has not committed a disciplinary violation since 2016, more than four years ago. All of this suggests that DeJohn is aging out of recidivism.” (Older offenders are far less likely to reoffend than younger ones, according to the U.S. government’s own data.)
Eight months later, DeJohn was set free. However, he will be under the supervision of a federal probation officer for the next 10 years.
Since his release, DeJohn had been in full compliance with the conditions of his probation, his lawyer wrote in a June 2021 motion requesting DeJohn be allowed to move to North Carolina. But since he had been away for so long, DeJohn was finding it difficult to rebuild his life in Central New York, the filing stated. His only friends in the area were either people with prior convictions or ones who were not necessarily “committed to [living] law-abiding lives,” it said, adding that DeJohn, who had worked in construction before he was sent away, had had a hard time finding a steady job now that he had a felony record.
“Fortunately, he was offered construction work in the area of Raleigh, North Carolina,” the motion stated. “His potential employer...has offered to put up Mr. DeJohn until he can afford his own place.”
According to his lawyer, DeJohn made numerous “informal attempts” for approval from the probation office to relocate, but had “been met with indifference.”
“Mr. DeJohn is committed to building a law-abiding life,” the motion concluded. “Allowing him to relocate away from his prior connections in Central New York and to a location that offers steady employment and positive influences will help ensure his successful transition into the community.”
In early May, DeJohn’s probation officer showed up at his home in Upstate New York for an unannounced visit. The officer saw a GMC Yukon parked in DeJohn’s driveway, and asked whose it was. DeJohn said it belonged to a friend of his wife’s.
When the parole office later ran a DMV check on the truck’s license plate, they found it was registered not to a friend of DeJohn’s wife, but a friend of DeJohn’s named Michael Hirsh.
Hirsh had loaned the vehicle to DeJohn shortly after his release, so he could get around, Cesal explained. When someone goes away for a decade, “free world” relationships often go by the wayside, according to Cesal.
“When you get out of prison, think of who’s been your friends for the last 10 years,” Cesal said. “Who’s he going to lean on and say, ‘Hey, help me with a car,’ but his friends that he had from before his arrest? You know, a lot of people in prison come from pretty destitute families.”
Hirsh had been one of DeJohn’s 14 co-defendants back in 2005, although unlike DeJohn, a jury acquitted Hirsh of all charges. Fifteen years later, Hirsh was convicted on a state charge of criminal possession of marijuana in the third degree, meaning he was caught with eight ounces or more, and sentenced to probation. In June 2021, more than a month after New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo legalized pot, the Oswego County Probation office searched Hirsh’s residence and seized some 50 marijuana plants from the property.
On June 17, DeJohn’s probation officer seized his cell phone “based upon reasonable suspicion that he was associating with convicted felon, Michael S. Hirsh,” according to the government. “A review of DeJohn’s cell phone identified that DeJohn and Hirsh had been in daily communication since his release from imprisonment and were associating in-person at each other's residences or within the community,” it continues. “Additionally, the review of the offender’s cell phone identified that DeJohn is in regular communication via text messages with several federal inmates and is sending money to their commissary accounts in the Bureau of Prisons.”
Of course he did, said Cesal, explaining, “You know, those are the people that had his back to make sure he wouldn’t get beat up in prison.”
A month later, DeJohn admitted to having been in touch with Hirsh as well as “BOP inmates whom he was housed with during his period of incarceration.” However, DeJohn had stated on his written monthly supervision report form that he “had not been associating with a known felon.” DeJohn also hadn’t informed his probation officer that he moved from the house he shared with his wife to his parents’ home about 20 minutes away.
“The Probation Office is recommending the offender be placed in a federal residential reentry center for a period of six months as a result of his recent actions,” the filing states.
DeJohn is not presently allowed to have a cell phone, and has not been granted phone privileges yet in the facility where he is now living, said Cesal. James Egan, DeJohn’s lawyer, did not respond to a request for comment.
“As far as Tony, is he really a threat to society?” said Cesal. “Did anything that they cited in that supervised release violation show that he was a threat to anybody? No. It’s like this [marijuana] charge. You know, have you ever heard of somebody being forcibly giving marijuana to somebody? No, people come and ask for it.”