Stewart Seeks to Repeal Mandatory Minimums

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Stewart Seeks to Repeal Mandatory Minimums

by Ari Armstrong, August 23, 2002

"Too often we have a stereotype of who's behind bars," but many inmates are non-violent, Julie Stewart noted August 9 at a forum in Aspen. Today, many prisoners, especially in the federal system, are "non-violent, first-time drug offenders." Stewart heads the Washington, D.C.-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums.


Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums presents her case in Aspen.

Stewart got involved in the issue when her brother was sent to prison for five years under mandatory sentencing. A couple guys who rented some property from him decided to grow 360 marijuana plants in their garage. Stewart's brother knew about the operation and planned to take some of the produce for his personal use. Shortly after the plants sprouted the men were arrested. The men who rented the property "ratted out" Stewart's brother and got probation. Stewart's brother was sent to prison for five years. The judge presiding over the case said five years was too severe but his hands had been tied by Congress.

Stewart, shocked by the severity of the sentence and the disparity between her brother's sentence and the probation handed to the men who rented the property, started FAMM. That was just over a decade ago. Now, FAMM is active in federal and state politics and pays a small staff to run the D.C. office. FAMM's work was recently featured in a movie made for Court TV.

Unfortunately, many non-violent, first-time offenders fare much worse than Stewart's brother. As a Time article from February 1, 1999 relates, Joanne Tucker got a 10-year sentence because her husband sold hydroponics, she did a little bookkeeping for her husband, and the DEA raided the homes of marijuana users who pled to lesser sentences for implicating Tucker.

Often, the higher-level drug dealers plead to lesser sentences in exchange for providing information about other dealers. Those peripherally involved don't have any information to trade, so they can wind up with sentences several times the length of the main dealer. Mandatory sentences are especially oppressive for minorities and the poor. (Sons and daughters of politicians rarely face hard time for the same crimes.) Costs of mandatory minimums include staggering U.S. prison expansion, broken families, and a fundamentally unjust legal system. Meanwhile, non-violent drug offenders often end up with sentences more severe than those for sexual assault and manslaughter.

While most mandatory minimum sentences today apply to drug cases, Stewart said historically they have followed the "crime du jour." A sensational crime or problem leads to politically-motivated policies that seldom work out as billed. Today, mandatory minimums are landing people in prison for non-violent gun offenses, too.

Stewart pointed to two legal absurdities that came with the mandatory minimums of the 1980s. The sentences for LSD were based on weight, not doses, so the same amount of LSD on sugar cubes could net radically higher sentences than for LSD on thin paper. Also, marijuana plants were arbitrarily assigned a weight of one kilogram, even if the plant never produced so much as a gram of usable marijuana, and even though the number is ridiculously high generally. Fortunately, some progress was made in the mid-1990s to address these problems.

Stewart's cause has suffered some setbacks, such as when the Supreme Court allowed mandatory minimums to stand in 1989. But FAMM has also earned some successes. Stewart estimates some 45,000 people have been affected by sentencing changes FAMM has encouraged. For instance, in 1994 Congress passed "safety valve" legislation easing sentences for some low-level, first-time offenders.

"We'd like to see mandatory minimum sentences repealed altogether," and replaced by more flexible sentencing guidelines and judicial discretion, Stewart said. A sentencing commission is already in place to provide more standardized sentencing across regions, and their "guidelines have plenty of teeth to put violent offenders away," Stewart said.

To join FAMM or donate money to the organization, see the web page at http://famm.org/.

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