Thursday, February 21, 2013

In the Beginning ...

There was a pot conviction.  A man growing marijuana got a five-year prison sentence.  Required by law.  Nothing the judge could do about it but give the five-year term, even though less time would have sufficed.

And that's how Julie Stewart came to start Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), back in 1991.

You can read the full story here, in a new piece at Take Part's companion website to the new film "Snitch," coming to theaters tomorrow, February 22.

“Families against what?”

When I started Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991, I got that question a lot. Few people knew what mandatory minimums were. In fact, it seemed that the only people aware of them were the politicians who voted for them and the individuals who were sentenced to them. I set about to change that. For the past two decades, I have dedicated my life to educating as many people as I could about the stupidity and cruelty of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The first person I educated was myself. I knew nothing about mandatory sentencing laws, prison or criminal justice issues until my brother was arrested for cultivating marijuana in 1990. He was pretty much treading water with his life when he and two friends decided to grow marijuana in a garage. One of the friends was an electrician; so he set up the grow lights, and they proceeded to fit as many small garden pots as possible into the garage space with marijuana seeds in each—365 in all.
When the marijuana plants were about six inches tall, one of the friends decided to show a neighbor what they were doing. The neighbor surveyed the garage full of marijuana seedlings and promptly called the police. My brother’s two friends were arrested and immediately turned in my brother. In exchange for their cooperation, they each received probation—even though one of them had been to prison in California for a drug offense.

My brother’s case is small potatoes in many ways; yet it illustrates much of what’s wrong with our sentencing policies. First and foremost: Why was my brother’s case prosecuted in the federal system? The offense took place in a garage in Washington State. He didn’t cross state lines; he didn’t sell drugs to a federal informant (he didn’t sell any!); he didn’t launder money; there was no logical reason for the federal government to pick up my brother’s petty marijuana growing attempt.
The only explanation that makes sense is that prosecutors knew he would do more time in federal prison than in state prison. This is commonly referred to as “jurisdiction shopping.” In the 21 years I’ve been running FAMM, I’ve seen it carried out repeatedly. Small-fry drug offenders are routinely prosecuted in the federal system and end up serving many years in prison. ...
The prosecutor told my brother there was only one way to avoid that sentence—snitch on someone else. At the time, I was horrified by the thought of my brother going to prison for five years. I’m not proud to admit that I begged him to consider informing on someone else. He considered it. He knew other people, longtime friends in some cases, who had been growing marijuana for years. But he also knew that if he turned them in, they would be subjected to the same madness he was going through, and their families would be left in shambles.

My brother decided he could not live with himself if he destroyed someone else’s life just to save his. I respected his decision, and I’m glad he made it even though it meant he had to spend five years in prison. But my initial reaction to the snitching-option makes me understand why people choose it, especially when facing mandatory sentences of ten or 20 years or life in prison.

That’s when I really learned about mandatory minimum sentencing laws. ... If, and only if, the government thinks you’ve been helpful, it will grant a motion that allows the judge to give you a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum sentence.

When my brother was sentenced, the federal judge looked at him and said, “I do not want to give you this sentence but my hands are tied by Congress.” What the judge meant was that the mandatory drug sentencing laws Congress passed in 1986 forced him to give my brother a five-year sentence. Because my brother had not cooperated, the government did not file a motion that would have allowed the judge to sentence him to less than five years. In court, the judge railed against mandatory minimum sentences—and my eyes were opened.
So, this is why we're fighting.  It's not just data to us, here at FAMM.  Every sentence is a person, a true story, and a call to action.  Make sure to check out "Snitch" in theaters this weekend, sign the petition at the Take Part website, and tell your friends about FAMM's work!