Julie and Jeff at FAMM's 15th anniversary gala
Twenty years ago, Julie Stewart received a call that she will never forget: her brother had been arrested for growing marijuana in Washington state. Though he was guilty of filling his garage with marijuana seedlings and had to face the consequences for breaking the law, no one in Julie’s family expected her brother’s case to rise to the level of offense, punishable by five years in prison.
Then they learned about mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the stiff prison terms they carry. Although the judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, he had no choice but to sentence her brother to five years in federal prison. His two codefendants received probation for turning in her brother. Julie was both bewildered and angry. “His experience led me to believe the sentencing system needed a drastic overhaul," said Julie.
Building an organization for justice
In 1991, Julie started Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to fight for sentencing laws that fit the crime and individual. “The mission seemed so sensible. I expected it to take about five years to convince lawmakers of the error of their ways and then I’d move on to other things,” Julie says. “I never guessed 15 years would pass and my brother would have long ago left prison, but mandatory sentences would still be in effect.”
What time has taught her is that mandatory minimums and other rigid sentencing policies have become entrenched in the American criminal justice system. Lawmakers use them to assure the public they are “tough on crime,” even though the relationship between sentencing and crime is thin at best. Even so, FAMM has managed to change sentencing laws in big ways and small to impact the length of sentences for thousands of defendants in the past 15 years.
In 1994, FAMM lobbied for the passage of a “safety valve” to give federal judges discretion to reduce sentences for nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. Every year since 1994, 5,000 people – one in four nonviolent, first-time drug offenders entering federal prison – have received sentence reductions.
In 1998, FAMM succeeded in changing Michigan’s harsh 650 lifer drug law to allow for parole, even for people already incarcerated, and in 2003 led the campaign that changed the rest of Michigan’s draconian mandatory drug sentences. Scores of individuals have benefited from those changes, including JeDonna Young, whose story opened the eyes and doors of Michigan state lawmakers and made them want to reform the 650 lifer law.
FAMM also successfully lobbied for changes to federal guideline sentences for LSD and marijuana offenses and works each year to find new ways to improve the guideline system. FAMM’s litigation project helped arrange pro bono legal representative for 17 people whose sentences were commuted in 2001 by President Clinton. It also assists with post conviction appeals and files friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court.
And FAMM has successfully lobbied against proposed federal and state laws that would have established even more mandatory minimum sentences.
The cause continues
The unfairness of the system and the need for change still drive Julie and her staff. “I am still motivated by the cruelty of a system where politicians mandate sentences for defendants they have never even seen, and by the stories of people serving needlessly long sentences. These narratives inspire us to continue to fight for the justice that is so sorely lacking,” says Julie.
Read more about FAMM’s victories. Click here.