FAMM: A Family Affair

Post Date: June 12, 2013

My brother, Jeff, recently wrote the letter below to FAMM members across the country.  You may have gotten a copy but I wanted to make sure you saw it because Jeff’s perspective is important.  He has been to prison and remembers what it’s like to seek change from behind bars.  Now, on the outside, he continues to fight for changes that will prevent others from experiencing what he did.

From his proud sister, 

Julie 

Julie Stewart
____________________________________________________

Dear Friend of FAMM:

My name is Jeff Stewart and I am the reason FAMM exists.  When I went to prison in 1990 for growing marijuana, my sister, Julie Stewart, was so appalled by what she learned about mandatory sentencing laws that she started Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Not everyone in prison has a sister who launches an organization to change the laws, so you can understand why I think she’s so special! 

But what Julie has done for prisoners and their families in the past two decades is what’s really important and that’s why she deserves your support.

After starting FAMM in 1991, Julie went right to work, convinced she could change mandatory sentencing laws.  And you know what? She did. She and FAMM achieved one of their greatest successes, just three years later, with the passage of the “safety valve” for federal drug offenders. I remember how hard Julie, and all FAMM members, fought for that reform so that many first-time and nonviolent drug offenders – people like me – wouldn’t be hammered with excessive sentences. 

The safety valve wasn’t applied retroactively so it didn’t shave a day off of my sentence.  I can’t deny that it was a bitter pill for me and my fellow prisoners to swallow. We were serving the ridiculous sentences. Those were our stories that Julie used to highlight the need for change. 

But I fully understood what an important victory the safety valve was. Other people – those who hadn’t been sentenced yet, those who couldn’t imagine they would face a prison sentence someday, those who weren’t even born yet – were going to serve sentences that were fairer as a result of the safety valve. 

And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.  Over 80,000 people have received shorter sentences since 1994 thanks to the safety valve.  And those shorter sentences saved taxpayers over $2 billion! Those are pretty astounding numbers, especially because the safety valve only benefitted drug offenders and only a small portion of them.

That’s why what’s happening now is so exciting.  Right now, a FAMM-sponsored safety valve bill with bipartisan support has been introduced in both the Senate and the House. The new “Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013” isn’t just for drug offenders. It would give federal courts the ability to sentence anyone who is facing a mandatory minimum sentence to less prison time if the judge determines that the mandatory minimum over-punishes the person and the defendant is not a risk to public safety.  If this bill passes, it could reduce sentences for thousands of people over the years and save a lot of money in the process.  

While this good news is happening for future prisoners, I never forget those who are already behind bars.  One of the most important reforms FAMM is working on now is expanding good time credit.  Because there is no parole in federal prison, I remember how carefully I calculated my good time when I was in prison and it seemed very puny. 

So, if the amount of good time a person can earn were increased it would not only reunite families sooner, it would provide greater incentives to stay out of trouble in prison and save taxpayers’ money.  It’s a win-win-win proposition!   Julie tells me that a good time bill is likely to be introduced in Congress very soon, which is fantastic.

FAMM is also helping those in prison by championing greater use of halfway houses and home confinement.  By law – a law that FAMM was instrumental in passing – the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) can give qualified prisoners up to 12 months in a halfway house but it seldom does, in part because there isn’t enough space in the halfway houses.  That doesn’t make any sense.  If there aren’t enough halfway house beds, the BOP should send people to home confinement, which isn’t being used as much as it could and FAMM is fighting to change that. 

I’m especially proud of FAMM for working to improve the Bureau of Prison’s compassionate release program. Terminally ill people in prison should be allowed to go home – it’s the humane thing to do and Congress agrees.  Last year, FAMM and Human Rights Watch wrote a report about compassionate release and how stingy the BOP is about it. Their recommendations are gaining traction: the BOP just eliminated one of the many hurdles to gaining compassionate release. Also, the Inspector General of the Justice Department wrote a report about compassionate release recently that complete supported everything the FAMM report said!

So, it’s very cool to see that FAMM is still in the middle of just about every sentencing-related issue in Washington, D.C.!  I saw that first-hand when I worked at FAMM after my release years ago, and it’s still true! 

In fact, FAMM’s efforts extend beyond Washington, D.C. to Florida and Massachusetts where they have very active and successful campaigns to change sentencing laws that would help thousands of defendants and prisoners.  Dozens of prisoners in Massachusetts went home early last fall as a result of FAMM’s work in the state and hundreds more are expected to do so in the years ahead!

I never could have imagined 23 years ago that my incarceration would lead to the creation of an organization that has made such a difference in so many people’s lives.  Of course, Julie and the FAMM team would not have survived without contributions from people like you.  It costs a lot to fight the government (if you’ve ever been indicted, you know that!). 

That’s why I’m asking you to keep supporting my feisty sister by making as big a donation to FAMM as you can!  She wasn’t afraid to take on the government when I went to prison and she still isn’t!   Julie and the remarkable team she has built dream big and get results. 

As Julie always said to me when I was in prison, nothing is permanent.  Laws always change and no one should ever give up hope.  Of course, they change a lot faster when FAMM is pushing them forward and that’s why I will always support FAMM and you should, too.  

Sincerely,

Jeff

Jeff Stewart

P.S. I do whatever I can for FAMM, not only because my sister runs it but because FAMM’s work changes lives.  Join me in supporting FAMM now with a donation that will change another 80,000 lives or more!