How Mandatory Minimums Almost Killed Santa Claus

Post Date: December 22, 2013

Among my favorite parts of the holiday season are the annual rituals. I love finding and decorating the Christmas tree, putting up the lights and decorations on the house, and baking eating plainly unhealthy amounts of Christmas cookies of all types. Mostly, though, I love Christmas movies. Every Christmas Eve I make a point to watch “A Christmas Carol” (George C. Scott version exclusively), and of course “A Christmas Story” is a given on Christmas Eve/Day. For weeks leading up to Christmas I watch as many Christmas movies as I can. My favorites: Elf, Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, Trading Places, and Die Hard.

The other Christmas movie I really love is The Santa Clause. For the handful of you who might not have seen the movie (which grossed $189,833,357 at the box office back in 1994), “The Santa Clause” stars international superstar and legendary funnyman Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, who, per Wikipedia, is “a 37-year-old divorced father and advertising executive for a toy company in Chicago with a young son, Charlie.”

Again, per Wikipedia:

On Christmas Eve, Charlie comes to spend the night with Scott before going to his mother and stepfather’s for Christmas Day. Scott assures Charlie of Santa Claus’ existence, despite not believing himself. That night, they are awakened by a clatter on the roof, and when Scott calls out to the trespasser, he falls into the snow on Scott’s front yard and vanishes, leaving his clothing behind. Scott and Charlie discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and deduce the man was Santa Claus. They find a card in the clothing instructing that if something should happen to Santa, whoever finds the clothes should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott around to children’s houses to finish Santa’s deliveries.

I don’t want to give too much away, but Calvin becomes Santa Claus.

It’s a great movie, and mandatory minimums almost killed it. Here’s how.

In 1978, Michigan passed its “650-Lifer” law, one of the earliest mandatory minimum drug laws in the country. Patterned explicitly after New York’s “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” “650-Lifer” established a mandatory life sentence without parole for anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin.

Michigan’s Governor William G. Milliken signed “650-Lifer” into law on May 12, 1978, despite warnings from criminal justice professionals that the law wouldn’t work, despite the early signs that New York’s mandatory minimums were already filling its prisons and failing to deter drug activity or crime, and even despite the fact that Michigan’s prisons were already overcrowded and an economic recession was squeezing the state’s budget. Milliken was concerned with Michigan’s growing drug problem, and he was convinced mandatory minimums would solve it.

In October 1978, Timothy Allen Dick was arrested for possession of more than 650 grams of cocaine (actually it was a little more than a pound) at an airport in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was charged under federal law – not Michigan law – and as a result served less than two and a half years. After his release, Timothy Allen Dick launched an acting and comedy career that made him famous as Tim Allen. Allen, of course, would star as Tim “The Toolman” Taylor in the hugely popular sitcom Home Improvement, and, later, as Scott Calvin/Santa in The Santa Clause. If Allen had been charged under Michigan’s 650-Lifer law, the judge would have had no discretion over the sentence. Instead of serving 2.5 years in prison followed by a hugely successful acting career, Allen would have been given a sentence of life without parole.

In part because of cases like Allen’s, and in part because of the overwhelming evidence that its experiment with mandatory minimum drug laws had failed, FAMM and other groups pushed Michigan to repeal its 650-Lifer law. Governor Milliken, who signed them into law in 1978, helped lead the effort for repeal. He said:

I believed then that it was the right response to an insidious and growing drug problem. I have since come to realize that the provisions of this law have led to terrible injustices and that signing it in the first instance was a mistake – an overly punishing and cruel response which gave no discretion whatever to a sentencing judge, even for extenuating circumstances.

Milliken later called signing the 650-Lifer law the “greatest mistake of my career.”

Michigan’s prosecutors, apparently more enlightened than some in other states, joined the effort. One assistant prosecutor said that Michigan’s mandatory minimum drug laws led to “warehousing too many low-level nonviolent offenders with a minimal role in the drug trade for too long in costly prison beds.” David Morse, then president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, put it plain: mandatory minimums simply weren’t working: He said, “The idea of stiff severe penalties for drug kingpins was a problem because we weren’t getting those kingpins. We were getting people who were carrying on behalf of kingpins.”

Rather, as State Representative Barbara Dodd, a Republican who began an effort to reform Michigan’s laws, said, “A lot of them were young people who made very stupid mistakes but shouldn’t have to pay for it for the rest of their lives.”

Endorsing the repeal of Michigan’s mandatory minimum drug laws, Morse added that:

Michigan’s prosecutors recognize that an effective drug policy is a combination of criminal justice strategies, readily available drug treatment programs, incarceration where appropriate, and prevention activities in schools, businesses, and homes. That is why we support a responsible approach to replacing the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes with sentences that are appropriate for the crime.

Even one of the original bill’s sponsors joined the effort for repeal, recognizing that “The statute is flawed because it eliminates a judge’s ability to exercise discretion. It has been used to snare too many who fit the language, the letter of the act, but who in no way fit the intent, the spirit of the act.”

In response to the overwhelming evidence of their failure, and the broad political coalition urging reform, in 2002 the Michigan legislature voted to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Republican Governor John Engler signed the measure into law the same year, and the reform took effect March 1, 2003.

Tim Allen said the drug bust that led to his federal prison sentence “probably saved my life.” That’s probably true. It’s equally true that a mandatory minimum life sentence would have ruined it. Allen was lucky to be charged under federal law (where judges still had some discretion in sentencing) rather than Michigan (where they did not). If he’d been convicted in Michigan, the 650-Lifer would have put Allen in prison probably for decades, and killed The Santa Clause in the process. As it stands, Allen’s experience is a testament to the power of redemption and second chances. If given the opportunity, people can turn their lives around. Far too often, mandatory minimums utterly foreclose this possibility. With two million people locked up in the U.S., one wonders how many would-be stars are behind bars right now.

Finally, consider these tidings of comfort and joy: since Michigan repealed its mandatory minimum drug laws, Michigan has released thousands of low-level drug offenders, taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary prison costs, and Michigan’s crime rate has fallen about 27%.

That sounds like a Christmas miracle to me! Happy Holidays, everyone!

~Greg Newburn
FAMM State Policy Director

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