A Reason to Fight

Post Date: November 19, 2013

Kevin and GirlsMy name is Kevin Ring. For the past five years, I have worked for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). In two months, I will be reporting to federal prison.

My nine-year legal fight ended last week when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear my appeal. That night I had the most difficult conversation I have ever had in my life. I told my daughters, ages 7 and 11, that I would be going away to prison. I am very close to my girls because I’ve been a stay at home dad for the past several years. When my legal troubles began, my ex-wife was forced to go back to work and I stayed home and telecommuted.

During these years, we have done everything together from board games, to amusement parks to homework and doctors’ appointments. I might have thought I was a hot shot when I worked on Capitol Hill and at a law firm, but being their full-time dad has been the most rewarding job of my life.

Spending so much time with my girls made me even more desperate to have my conviction reversed so I would never have to leave them. Those dreams were dashed last week. I will never forget my feeling of helplessness as my girls sobbed for nearly an hour straight as the news sunk in. As a parent, you do everything you can to shield your kids from pain, and here I was causing it. It was a pain I would not wish on any other family.

Now, as I’m preparing to leave FAMM and my girls and head to prison, I’m asking you to help FAMM champion sentencing reforms by making a year-end donation. If there’s one thing I know, it’s this: FAMM’s cause is worth supporting, because FAMM supports people like me.

Unfortunately, I know that many families deal with similar grief – and that many have suffered much worse. When my legal troubles forced me out of my job, I applied to FAMM hoping to help out by writing grant proposals or anything else that I could do from home while taking care of my children. I will be forever grateful that FAMM’s president, Julie Stewart, took the time to interview me and to get to know me.

Working at FAMM helped me gain perspective on my situation and enabled me to bring a new point of view to FAMM’s work. I was prosecuted for a white-collar crime, one that did not carry a mandatory minimum sentence. However, because the sentencing guideline that applies to economic crimes suffers from the same problem that plagues many drug crimes, I was threatened with an incredibly long sentence if I did not plead guilty – more than six times longer than the admitted leader of the conspiracy received.

I believed in my innocence, so I turned down the government’s offer – which felt more like a demand – to plead guilty. I would not cooperate against others who I did not think committed any crimes. Instead, I exercised my constitutional right to a trial. The jury in my first trial was divided down the middle on all eight counts I was facing, and the judge declared a mistrial. I hoped that was the end of my nightmare, but the government tried me again and I was convicted of five counts.

At sentencing, the prosecutors first asked the judge to sentence me to 20 to 27 years in prison. When she balked, they asked for five years. In the end, after sentencing many others involved to probation and community corrections, the judge imposed a 20-month prison sentence.

Obviously, I was grateful that the judge didn’t follow the government’s recommendation, but this entire experience has left me disillusioned and angry. The games the prosecutors played had no business in a process that was designed to produce justice. But, through it all, my work for FAMM reminded me that I did not have it as bad as many other people. Not by a long shot.

At FAMM I have met people who would be thrilled to have my 20 month sentence. People like Stephanie Nodd, a nonviolent first time offender like me, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a one-month stint selling crack cocaine. Or Orville Lee Wollard in Florida, who received a mandatory prison sentence of 20 years for trying to protect his daughter from an abusive boyfriend. Or Lawrence and Lamont Garrison, who spent a dozen years in prison for allegedly selling drugs, despite no compelling evidence of their guilt.

Meeting these individuals taught me two things. First, I learned that I was lucky that my offense did not carry a mandatory minimum sentence. If the prosecutors had gotten their way, like they did with Stephanie, Orville, and Lawrence and Lamont, I would be preparing for a two-decade prison sentence that would have completely destroyed my family.

The second thing I learned is that the individuals and families affected by bad sentencing laws might seem different on the surface, but they really aren’t. Many are black, but many, like me, are not. Some sold drugs, while some, like me, never have. Others got caught looking at dirty pictures on the Internet, and others, like me, did not. And, finally, some were charged with crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences, while others, like me, did not. In the end, however, we are more alike than we are different:

We’re all being sentenced based on rigid formulas that put too much emphasis on one factor. In drug cases, it’s the weight of the drug; in gun cases, it’s mere possession of a gun; in economic crimes, like mine, it’s the amount of “loss” measured in dollars. With each of these crimes, single factors have a bigger impact on sentence length than the individual’s actual role in the crime.

I’ve also learned that sentences are simply too long. Legislators have too often pushed for longer and longer sentences, even when there was no evidence to suggest longer punishments were needed. Worse, sentence lengths have been increased to keep pace with one another. For example, after Congress passed lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, the Sentencing Commission voted to make sentences longer for white-collar offenders in the name of “fairness.” In other words, if some people were going to get cruel and disproportionate sentences, we might as well make everyone suffer.

This one-way ratchet has kept on turning because the public’s concern was divided and selfish. Twenty years ago, corporate America didn’t care when inner city communities were getting hammered with unjust mandatory minimums. Today, no one in urban America is shedding a tear that upper-class businessmen are receiving longer sentences for economic crimes. For the past five years, I have had a foot in both camps: standing trial in my case while working for FAMM. I have seen firsthand the injustices in both areas.

Everything I have seen and learned has made me grateful for FAMM’s leadership. Only FAMM truly understands how federal and state sentencing laws are failing all Americans. More importantly, only FAMM is working nonstop to build the broadest possible coalition of affected families, legal experts, and policy advocates in order to achieve the common sense reform we need.

In the short time I have worked at FAMM, I have watched them lead the effort to fix the indefensible 100:1 crack sentencing disparity and then convince the Sentencing Commission to make the improved crack guideline retroactive. I have seen them win victories in the states, such as Massachusetts and Georgia, while laying the groundwork for major reform in Florida. And I have watched them spearhead the most significant proposal for federal sentencing reform in a generation, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which is gaining more support every day.

Part of my job at FAMM has been to write the legal and legislative updates that are sent to our imprisoned members. In a couple of months, I will switch sides and be on the receiving end of those updates. I will be another FAMM member serving a federal prison sentence and looking for hope wherever I can find it.  I know one place I can find it is at FAMM.

That’s why I’m writing you and sharing my story. I really want you to contribute to FAMM. I’ve seen how hard they work and how much they accomplish on a bare bones budget. I want FAMM to continue to succeed – and it will with all of our support.

By letting me work as a member of FAMM’s team for the past five years, they have changed my life. But I have seen FAMM change the lives of thousands of others, too.

So, no matter where I am, I will never stop trying to help FAMM advance its mission. Mandatory minimum sentences must be repealed so that judges have the discretion to impose fairer sentences that take into account all of the facts and circumstances of a crime and the offender. Federal and state sentencing guidelines must be rational and flexible so that offenders receive the punishment they deserve – no more, no less. Even those who commit crimes we cannot understand deserve justice, not vengeance.

As I head to prison, I won’t be here to help FAMM in the hands-on way I have for the past five years. But I’m confident that supporters like you will keep FAMM going strong. Please continue to help FAMM fight for sensible sentencing laws so that one day we’ll see an end to irrational punishments.

Thank you for giving as generously as you can.

Sincerely,

Kevin

Kevin Ring, FAMM