Julie on Justice: Families Against Stupid Sentences

Post Date: January 1, 2013

Julie Stewart Head Shot

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

Happy New Year! I hope you and your loved ones had a great holiday season.  I had a much appreciated break and then returned to FAMM and the hundreds of emails that pile up during time away.

One of the emails I received was from a FAMM member in prison who wrote, “Do you only work on drug cases?” The mother of another prisoner wrote, “Why do you talk so much about drugs? What about prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for other crimes, like gun crimes or child pornography offenses?”

These are good questions and this is a good time – as we begin a new year – to clarify what FAMM is all about.  To begin with, we do not care only about drug cases.  We oppose all mandatory minimums.  We do so because they eliminate the discretion of courts to impose a sentence that fits the individual who committed the crime and the unique circumstances of the crime.  The politicians who draft mandatory sentencing laws cannot foresee every circumstance that might arise in the future.  That’s why judges need the flexibility to make sure the punishment fits the crime and the offender.

So, to those who ask if we work only on drug cases, the answer is “no.” But we talk so much about drugs because more people are serving federal and state sentences for drug crimes than any other type of offense.  For example, in 2010, more than 75 percent of federal convictions carrying a mandatory minimum sentence were for drug crimes.

But we strongly oppose mandatory minimums that apply to other offenses, too.  FAMM has and will continue to speak out against excessive gun mandatory sentences that paint routine offenders as “career criminals.”  And we will continue to oppose overly broad child pornography sentences that do not distinguish between those who look at photos online and those who physically abuse children.  While this may make some of our members uncomfortable, we are not in the business of moralizing.  We are in the business of making sure that whoever breaks the law receives a sentence that fits his or her crime and role in it.

Despite our name, FAMM does not only oppose mandatory minimum sentences.  Although that was my original focus, I quickly learned that mandatory minimum sentences had perverted the sentencing system so badly that we needed to fight their harmful effects in other areas. For instance, drug and gun mandatory minimums passed by Congress caused the U.S. Sentencing Commission to increase the sentencing guidelines for drug and gun offenses. Then, to maintain parity between those and other offenses, the guidelines were raised for lots of other crimes. Today, the sentencing guidelines are absurdly high for all kinds of crimes, including many white collar offenses.

So, in addition to advocating for repeal of all mandatory minimums, FAMM actively promotes reform of the federal sentencing guidelines. To curtail the effects of excessive sentences — whether mandatory or guideline-driven — FAMM seeks greater opportunities for prisoners to earn “good time” credit and early release.  We also fight to restore a vibrant clemency process so that presidents and governors are free and willing to ameliorate the worst results of one-size-fits-all sentencing laws.

So maybe our name shouldn’t be FAMM. Maybe it should be FASS (Families Against Stupid Sentences) or FFFS (Families For Fair Sentences)!  In the end, our name isn’t important. What’s important is that we get the job done and restore flexibility and discretion to our nation’s sentencing systems. In 2013, we will step up the fight in all the areas in which we work and we will be asking you to help us.

One reason I know we will be successful is because of the commitment of our membership. As you know, we just finished our year-end fundraising drive. Thanks to so many of you, we raised $76,000 in the month of December!  That amount will be matched by one of our most ardent and generous supporters, giving us a welcome $152,000 with which to start our fight for sentencing justice in this new year.  That makes this a very Happy New Year, indeed!  Thank you so much!

My very best,

Julie

Julie Stewart

FAMM President