Nichole Forde’s life was spiraling downward. Abused as a child, living on the streets, two suicide attempts … When she was finally convicted of selling drugs in 2010, it might have been a blessing in disguise. Nichole needed a change. A reasonable prison sentence could have helped her repay her debt to society and turn her life around. But Nichole, because she was classified as
a so-called career offender, didn’t get a reasonable sentence. She got 27 years.
When Nichole Marie Forde was convicted in Iowa of selling drugs in 2010, she was sent to prison for 327 months (more than 27 years) because she was considered a “career offender.” Her sentence for drug sales in which she never used or threatened violence is longer than the average sentences of people convicted of sexual abuse (10½ years), arson (almost 7 years), and racketeering or extortion, robbery, and firearms offenses—all of which carry sentences of 6½ years.
It’s hard to square the Career Offender label—designed as a guideline for sentencing drug kingpins and violent criminals—with the life of a woman who seemed to struggle at almost every turn, who always “felt like I wasn’t good enough for anyone.” A tumultuous childhood contributed to mental illness, teen pregnancy, life on the streets, the loss of custody of her three children, inability to maintain a job, and an abusive and controlling boyfriend.
Nichole fell in to dealing drugs, often traveling to Chicago to purchase crack cocaine, which she would bring back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and sell. Authorities started investigating through confidential informants and undercover officers in March of 2010, culminating in a raid on Nichole’s residence in late May, where they found drugs and drug paraphernalia.
She pled guilty to multiple counts of drug dealing, including a conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base. She also admitted to being the owner of a gun that was seized from her boyfriend at the time, which she’d purchased as protection against a former boyfriend. (In the end, the gun did not affect her sentence.)
Under current guidelines, a person is considered a Career Offender if she has at least two prior felony convictions for a drug offense or a crime of violence, and the current offense is a drug offense or crime of violence. Before her arrest, Nichole had prior convictions for theft, selling drugs, public intoxication, allowing people to gather at her house and use marijuana, and an assault for which she served four days in jail. (Nichole returned home one night to find her mother there, drunk and using drugs. When Nichole threatened to call the police, her mother slapped the phone out of her hand, and Nichole struck her. The altercation was the culmination of years of a “strained relationship,” related to her mother’s drug use and the sexual abuse Nichole suffered as a child from a babysitter—abuse her mother knew about and did nothing to stop.)
“I grew up fast,” she says. “My mother was into drugs, men, and booze, and I saw a lot.” Her parents divorced when she was four, and her mother’s boyfriend abused Nichole. She lived briefly with her father, but then landed on the streets, homeless, and then in a home for pregnant teens, from which she ran away.
In her adult life, poverty and single-motherhood repeatedly trapped her at the center of the pernicious triangle of a broken-down car, a sick child, and a job that wouldn’t tolerate such circumstances. She would again and again lose jobs, and in desperation turned to selling drugs.
“When I was trying to do right and struggling, I didn’t have a soul to help me,” Nichole says. “When I had drugs, though, everyone was there. I didn’t like selling drugs. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted for my family. However, you can’t pause life, and the bills don’t stop.”
Neither did her troubles, especially after she started seeing “Slim,” who encouraged her to sell drugs, and seemed to especially value her for it—and little else, often beating her so badly that she was “too banged up” to drive herself to work. He would drive her there, berating her the whole time, and on the way home, “he told me how much he loved me and how sorry he was.”
Through the years, Nichole bounced in and out of the system, repeatedly failing on probation for not being able to keep jobs, stay drug-free, or attend meetings with her probation officer, and all the while not getting the mental health treatment she needed. A major flood in her town also devastated her and her family. She attempted suicide twice during these years.
After she lost custody of her children, Nichole says, “I was too far down the rabbit hole to even see the light of day … My children were placed in a stable, happy home with a husband and wife that loved and respected each other. They were better off. So I walked away from my kids, and I have been crying for 10 years for their loss.”
Finally, before being incarcerated for her current federal drug offenses, Nichole went to a mental health treatment center, where she was diagnosed with major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. By then, though, it was too late.
At sentencing, Nichole’s lawyer asked for leniency, in light of the abuse she’d suffered and how it was connected to her drug sales. In the end, the judge gave her the highest sentence possible, an astounding 327 months, even though Nichole’s prosecutors had recommended a shorter sentence. Absent the Career Offender label, she would have received a sentence of 135-168 months.
Nichole has made the most of her six years so far in prison. “My therapeutic work with PTSD has helped me a lot. I no longer need medication to deal with panic attacks. I no longer have thoughts of killing myself. I deal with conflict completely different. I can recognize red flags a lot quicker now. I am 36 now and my outlook on a lot of things has changed … My main priority in prison is to get vocational training and keep a positive outlook.”
Looking at the span of her life, it’s clear that Nichole needed punishment for her drug dealing, as well as treatment for her serious mental health issues. At six years in, it’s clear that she has received both. Yet Nichole Forde—a so-called Career Offender—has more than 20 years remaining on her sentence.
Recently, there’s been a positive development in Nichole’s life. She spoke with her oldest son, 18, for the first time in more than a decade. “It feels like a piece of my soul that has been missing for 11 years has returned. He said that he loves me. I just want to go home. Six years is enough time for me to figure out what is important.”
The Facts: Nichole Marie Forde
Sentence: 327 months
Offense: Conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base; Distribution and aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine base; distribution of cocaine base; distribution and aiding and abetting the distribution of five grams or more of cocaine base; distribution and aiding and abetting the distribution of five grams or more of cocaine base
Priors: theft, selling drugs, public intoxication, allowing people to gather at her house and use marijuana, assault
Year sentenced: 2010
Age at sentencing: 30
Projected release date: 2034