Anyone familiar with mandatory minimum sentences knows that one of the only ways to escape their grasp is to confess to the crime and provide the prosecutors with information to go after others who might have been involved.
But what if you're innocent? Or what if you don't have any valuable information to trade? You're out of luck.
Two articles -- this Voice of America piece on Lamont and Lawrence Garrison, long-time FAMM supporters, and this sad story from The Houston Chronicle -- show the dilemma many a defendant can face, and the dangers of mandatory sentences. Those punishments can lead to false confessions and the jailing of innocent people, while those who are guilty (or have a lot more knowledge about the crime) go free or get less time.
From the Voice of America story:
In April of 1998, twins Lawrence and Lamont Garrison were about to graduate from Howard University in Washington. Both worked at the U.S. Justice Department and planned to attend law school. Then, they got the shock of their lives.
The man who had repaired their car a year earlier was indicted for cocaine and crack distribution. He told drug agents that the Garrisons had been involved in the drug conspiracy.
"They questioned me and showed me a picture of Tito Abea. They said, 'Have you ever seen this guy? And I said, 'Yes, he fixed my car,'" recalled Lawrence Garrison.
The Garrisons found themselves trapped on the darker side of federal laws that set mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, laws intended to make it easier to prosecute drug kingpins.
The garage owner faced a mandatory 10 years to life in prison. The only way to reduce that sentence was to implicate someone else, the Garrisons.
Critics of mandatory sentences say that is a common practice in drug cases. They also say the people implicated often have nothing to do with the crime.
"So they will give someone up. Other times, people actually make up names, and say, 'Well, yes, so and so did this. I saw him one time,'" explained Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences.
Lamont Garrison remembers being offered the opportunity to reduce his time.
"They said, O.K. Mr. Garrison, this is your opportunity to help yourself. 'Well help myself? How? What do you mean?' 'Well you know what this is about you guys are doing XYZ, you got to tell us what you are doing,'" recalled Lamont Garrison.
The opportunity to reduce one's sentence can lead to innocents being fingered for crimes they didn't commit.Prosecutors claim that they need mandatory minimums to get people to plead guilty, so that our courts aren't hopelessly clogged with cases going to trial. Even if that's true (and there's strong evidence it isn't), sending innocent people to prison is too high a price to pay for efficiency.