Julie on Justice: End the Love Affair

Post Date: June 1, 2013

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

There are a lot of reasons I oppose mandatory sentencing policies.  I hate that they take sentencing power away from the judge – who is supposed to be neutral – and give it to the prosecutor, who is far from neutral.  I hate that mandatory sentences, in their rigidity, ignore complex human behavior in favor of formulaic “justice” (if X then Y).  And I hate that so many Americans have accepted this overly simplistic system of punishment for violations of just about any law. 

But what probably bothers me the most is that mandatory sentences are so very long – usually unnecessarily long. In the federal courts, sentences of five, ten, and 20 years without parole are routine.  Over 2,000 people in federal prison have been sentenced to die there for their drug law violations.  It’s no wonder that no one bats an eye at a 10-year prison sentence when there are nonviolent offenders serving life.

But that doesn’t make it right. 

Two decades ago, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons was asked at a congressional hearing how much time a nonviolent offender needed to get the message.  Her reply was 12-18 months and anything beyond that was merely punitive. 

Wow – 1-1½ years.  Contrast that with the sentences handed out to these nonviolent offenders: Jack Carpenter for growing medical marijuana (10 years), or Celestia Mixon who was addicted to meth (15 years), or Michael Shuler for possessing heirloom guns (15 years).

If each of those people had been given sentences of 1-2 years, would we be less safe?  Would drug treatment have been a better option for Celestia than incarceration? 

I don’t know the answers, but I am confident – based on the testimony of someone who ran the federal prison system and on my own experience over the past 20 years of meeting people who have been in prison – that the combined 40 years Jack, Celestia and Michael will spend behind bars is overkill. 

It’s natural to want to be safe. And when we’re told by politicians (who are busy tripping over themselves to pass ever-tougher sentencing laws) that long, mandatory sentences = safer communities, it’s not hard to see how we ended up where we are today.  But that doesn’t make it right.  Or true.  It’s time to de-link public safety and long mandatory sentences because the evidence isn’t there — especially for nonviolent offenders. 

It’s time to ask the prosecutor in Montana who appealed a judge’s two-year sentence for Jason Washington because it was below the mandatory minimum, “What’s the evidence that a five-year sentence for growing marijuana is right?  Will Americans be safer if Jason Washington serves an extra three years behind bars?” 

It’s time to challenge the sentencing status quo.  It’s time to help your friends and community understand that five years is a very long time behind bars.  Even two years away from home in an institution is a long time. 

People need to understand that the wake-up call some offenders need to get their lives on track happens during the first 18 months of incarceration.  Former prisoners tell me that whatever benefit they got from going to prison definitely diminished after the five-year mark.

So, I have a big request: help me change our culture.  FAMM works tirelessly on policy change but what would help us more than anything would be to end America’s love affair with incarceration.  You can play an active and crucial role in making that happen.  

The next time you hear a friend or colleague say that someone got off easy with a 5- or 10-year sentence, don’t let the comment go.  Speak up.  Ask them to tell you what the benefit to society is of that sentence.  Ask them if a sentence half as long might have had the same impact.  Ask them if they’ve ever made a really stupid decision that could have landed them in big trouble if they’d been caught.  Ask them if they remember who they were five or ten years ago and what has happened in their lives since then. 

In other words, ask them to defend the length of a sentence given to a nonviolent offender.  Don’t let “if you do the crime, do the time” stand unchallenged – if they support depriving people of their liberty for years, they should be able to defend their position, intelligently.

This is a discussion that can start at the office water cooler and the neighborhood cookout and the family dinner table.  We need to change hearts and minds now so the politicians will listen later. 

We received a big dose of assistance today from an unlikely source: conservative columnist George Will.  While praising the sentencing reform bill introduced by Senators Paul and Leahy, he wrote, “Almost everyone who enters the desensitizing world of American prisons is going to return to society, and many will have been socially handicapped by the experience… All this takes a staggering toll on shattered families and disordered neighborhoods.”

Amen.  Now it’s our turn. I’m counting on you to help me – to help all of us.  Every drop in the bucket eventually fills it up. 

My best,

Julie

Julie Stewart 
President, FAMM

Follow me on Twitter, @JulieOnJustice