Julie on Justice: The Sentencing Hammer

Post Date: February 1, 2013

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

We’re only halfway through winter, but things are already heating up. The new Congress and state legislatures all across the country are meeting. Proposals for new mandatory minimums have sprung up in New York (for guns) and in Washington, D.C. (for sexual assault).

The big story for January, however, was that a long overdue spotlight was directed at the awesome power of prosecutors, and, in particular, how mandatory minimum sentencing laws add to that power. FAMM members have known this for years. We have seen prosecutors use their charging discretion as well as threats of long, mandatory sentences to get people to forfeit their right to a trial.

Thanks to a couple of recent and unfortunate events, the rest of the country might be starting to see the light. First, Montana medical marijuana dispensary owner Chris Williams faced a minimum of 85 years in prison after the feds raided his business and secured convictions for selling marijuana and having guns. The public outrage grew so great that the prosecutor offered Williams a deal of five years after the jury had already voted to convict him! Williams took the deal and was sentenced last week to five years in prison.  We are glad that he did not receive a ridiculous eight-decade prison term, but that shouldn’t have even been an option. Only because our federal gun mandatory minimum sentences are so long was that threat realistic! And only because the prosecutor has so much power could he offer a deal to effectively negate the jury’s conviction after the fact!

The other major event in January was the tragic suicide of 26-year-old Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz. Swartz was computer programmer who believed that academic journals should be distributed widely since they were supported by public funding. He used his computer expertise to covertly download and share articles from a private digital archive. As a result, he was charged two years ago with multiple counts of computer and wire fraud. While some dismissed Swartz’s misconduct as the equivalent of checking out library books too long and noticed he did not seek a profit, the prosecutors threatened him with up to 35 years in jail. On January 13, Swartz committed suicide.

Much of the outrage of Swartz’s death has been directed at the prosecutor in his case. Even some members of Congress are demanding answers from the prosecutors and Justice Department. But in a powerful op-ed, FAMM’s Mary Price nails the real problem:

While members of Congress are, justifiably, calling on the Department of Justice to account for prosecutorial overreaching, we believe that some honest congressional soul searching is also in order. It is in lawmakers’ power to remove the blunt force tools of excessive sentences and mandatory minimums from the hands of prosecutors. Rather than trying to legislate the exercise of executive discretion, policy makers can and should help channel it by ensuring that the sentences offenders face fit the crimes they are accused of committing and that judges have discretion to impose them. The sentencing laws are the problem lawmakers can fix.

Exactly. We need to change the sentencing laws.

On that note, I wanted to share two pieces of good news. First, on January 16, the Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a friend of FAMM’s, gave a speech outlining his committee’s agenda for the next two years. Near the beginning, he said:

I say this as a former prosecutor and I say this as a chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I think our reliance on mandatory minimums at the state and federal level has been a great mistake. I’m not convinced it has lowered crime, but I [know] that we have imprisoned people who should not be there, and we have wasted money that is better spent on other things. I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind [about] what should be done. The idea that we protect society by one-size-fits-all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer – it just does not work in the real world.

Bravo, Senator Leahy! We are already working with Senator Leahy to turn these sentiments into a bill, and with your help, from a bill into a law. Which brings me to my final point…

Advocacy requires an inside/outside effort. While we work the halls of Congress and state legislatures, we also stay focused on building an army of public support. That is why I am excited to let you know that we are partnering with Participant Media in support of its new movie, “Snitch,” which hits the theater on February 22. The movie, starting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is based on a FAMM members’ story that was featured in a 1999  documentary also called Snitch.  The Hollywood production takes a few liberties with the real story but does a great job of showing the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in a way that will grab people’s attention. (Watch the trailer.)

FAMM will use this film and the media surrounding it to educate the public about mandatory minimums and to engage them in our advocacy. Stay tuned for a note from FAMM communications director Monica Pratt Raffanel with all the details on how you can get involved!

My best,


Julie Stewart

FAMM President