U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced an important shift in Justice Department policy: He told federal prosecutors not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders.
Unfortunately for me and my daughter, Mandy Martinson, Holder’s proposal is both too little and too late.
Eight years ago, my daughter received a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for nonviolent drug and gun possession offenses. Mandy was leading a full, productive life before her drug problems escalated, taking everything from her in a matter of months.
After leaving an abusive relationship, she found comfort in methamphetamine. She began dating and living with a man who sold plenty of that drug and gave some to her. She occasionally drove with him when he went to pick up or drop off drugs, and she helped him count his earnings.
When police showed up at Mandy’s home to arrest him, they found drugs and two handguns in the house. Mandy was also arrested and charged. While her charges were pending, she realized she needed help. She obtained drug treatment and sobered up, resumed her career as a dental hygienist, and reconciled with our family.
Despite this extraordinary rehabilitation — and the fact that this was Mandy’s first and only conviction — U.S. District Judge James Gritzner, an appointee of President George W. Bush, had no choice but to sentence Mandy to the mandatory minimum term: 10 years in prison for the drugs, plus an additional five years for possessing a gun in the course of the drug crime.
Mandy has maintained her sobriety throughout the eight years she has spent in prison. She knows that she broke the law and deserved to be punished. But none of us, including Judge Gritzner, thought 15 years in prison fit Mandy or her role in the crime. Judge Gritzner wanted to give Mandy a 10-year sentence, but because of the mandatory minimum sentence for the guns found in Mandy’s home, he was required to add five years.
Mandy never used, fired or threatened others with the guns. At her sentencing, Judge Gritzner said that Mandy’s “possession of the firearm was at the direction of [her ex-boyfriend] and was facilitated by [her ex-boyfriend].” But these important facts could not be used to give her a fair and proportionate sentence.
The judge despaired that “under any possible sentence that the law would allow for Ms. Martinson, the sentence will exceed that of [her ex-boyfriend].” Indeed, Mandy is actually serving more prison time than her ex-boyfriend, who received a 12-year punishment despite his prior convictions for selling drugs.
Attorney General Holder’s new charging directions are a tiny step in the right direction, but only Congress can ensure that what happened to my daughter does not happen to the children of others. The Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would allow judges like Gritzner to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum term when certain facts and circumstances warrant it — for example, to avoid giving low-level offenders like Mandy longer sentences than their more involved co-defendants who have more prior convictions.
No one would be entitled to a lower sentence, and no one who doesn’t deserve a lower sentence would get one. This solution is a balanced and modest approach that will improve our justice system.
In prison, Mandy has continued to rehabilitate herself, take classes, get counseling, learn new job skills, deepen her faith and support other prisoners struggling with being incarcerated. She fears that she will not be released in time to find a life partner, conceive children and have a family of her own.
We continue to hope that President Obama will grant her request for a commutation of her sentence, but we know that the real solution must be a lasting and legislative one, from Congress.
I urge Iowa leaders like Sen. Chuck Grassley to take a hard look at all mandatory minimum sentences and give judges the discretion that Judge Gritzner didn’t have when he sentenced my daughter.
Cindy Martinson of Mason City is the mother of a federal prison inmate, Mandy Martinson. The elder Martinson is a support of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.