Post Date: January 23, 2014
(Huffington Post) — In 1999, a federal judge in the Southern District of Illinois did something that would trouble him for years: He gave a sentence of life without the possibility of parole to a young drug dealer who had never been convicted of a violent crime.
Judge John Phil Gilbert wasn’t what anyone would call a soft-on-crime liberal. He had attained his position through the recommendation of President George H.W. Bush, and believed the 27-year-old dealer deserved what the judge would later describe as a “substantial period of incarceration” for his role as a middleman in a drug ring that sold marijuana, LSD, cocaine and meth.
Even so, a lifetime in prison struck Gilbert as unduly harsh. But it wasn’t as though he had a choice. Under a strict federal sentencing formula adopted by the U.S. at the height of the drug war in 1987, the defendant’s six years in the drug trade were enough to guarantee him the criminal justice system’s harshest penalty short of death.
“Over the years,” Gilbert would later write of the defendant, Scott Walker, in a letter to President Obama, “the absolute nature of his sentence has often weighed on my mind.”
Fifteen years later, voters and politicians in states around the country are slowly rolling back the punitive drug policies of the 1980s and ’90s, allowing more drug offenders to serve time in rehabilitation programs instead of prison and relaxing the restrictions around marijuana. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has even instructed prosecutors to avoid going after small-time drug offenders, and federal judges are no longer required to follow the same guidelines that resulted in Walker’s severe sentence back in 1999.
And yet Walker, now 42, is still living out his days behind bars. “For about 20 years, we had very rigid mandatory sentencing guidelines that did a very good job of sending way too many people to prison for way too long,” said Molly Gill, federal legislative director at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group based in Washington. “Thirty years after those guidelines were passed, we’re seeing a generation of people who are becoming relics of this system that was overly harsh.” Read more