Stephanie’s story is a messy one, reflecting the chaotic life of a drug addict. It also shows how drug-weight threshold laws can have a devastating “cliff effect” on low-level offenders.
Arizona lawmakers thought that their one-size-fits-all prison sentences for drug offenses would only apply to major dealers. Meet Stephanie Troy, who received more than five years in prison as an addict who possessed less than 10 grams of methamphetamine.
Five years ago, Stephanie was at a friend’s house when the place was raided by law enforcement. Police found drugs in Stephanie’s purse, arrested her, and put her in jail. After she was released on bond, she was desperate and frightened. Her children were in Colorado at the time, and she took off to see them and say goodbye, thinking she might not see them again for years. Police issued an arrest warrant and picked her up. At trial, she was found guilty on two charges: possession of dangerous drugs for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Stephanie’s arrest was the climax of a very messy life fueled by drug addiction and domestic abuse. Raised in the small town of Kingman, Arizona, Stephanie was close with her younger sister, Tracey. In their teens, the two started drinking and taking drugs. Eventually, Stephanie’s young life came to center around a relationship with an abusive man, a relationship that would prove to be her undoing. In 2011, she married him. They had two children and lived for a time in Oregon, where Stephanie worked as a nurse. Eventually they returned to Kingman, and the relationship, always difficult and marked by violence and chaos, got even worse.
“He was a controller and she was a worker,” says Stephanie’s mother, Debbie Stevens. “Her whole life she was an over-achiever. Then everything fell apart.” They divorced in late 2011.
“It was the nasty divorce that really sent her into a spiral,” explains Debbie. “It went bad. It was real bad, real quick.” Stephanie’s abusive husband got custody of the kids, in a decision that Stephanie deeply regrets.
“She signed them over,” says Debbie. “She wasn’t in the right mind. I tried to explain to her what was going to happen, but she didn’t seem to understand—the way it was going or where it was going.”
Soon, Stephanie’s whole world became methamphetamine and the people she could use it with. Finally, in the raid at her friend’s house, police found 9.7 grams of methamphetamine—less than the weight of two nickels—in Stephanie’s purse. After she went to trial and was found guilty, it was that drug amount that triggered her long sentence—just 0.8 grams less would have meant the possibility of probation. Instead, she got more than half a decade in prison, even though this was her first adult felony offense (she had juvenile and misdemeanor offenses—stealing CDs and truancy).
As in Stephanie’s case, Arizona’s drug weight thresholds can be arbitrary and devastating. Threshold quantities can act as “cliffs,” dramatically pushing a minor offender from getting a reasonable punishment into one that is overly harsh—and not at all at the discretion of a judge.
Her first year behind bars, Stephanie’s thoughts were filled with remorse, but also bitterness. How could it be that her co-defendant, the friend in whose house Stephanie was caught, was sentenced to only three years of probation? But, as more and more days as a sober woman started adding up, Stephanie began to take a good, hard, honest look at her life. She became involved in the prison community, taking classes and earning more than a hundred certifications.
“She’s a whole different person now. She looks back and she doesn’t understand how she could have gone that way,” says Stephanie’s mother. “She’s religious now. She’s got a job as a firefighter. She’s healthy, she’s into fitness and eating right. She got a certification for running a forklift at the food bank where she worked for a while.
“She says the firefighting is the hardest thing she’s ever done in her life. Fire season’s coming up, where they will go out on the line and be right in there. I’m worried for her, but she’s putting her all into it. She’s training every day. They go out on jobs, cutting palm trees, putting out smaller fires.”
Debbie wonders whether the money spent to keep Stephanie behind bars wouldn’t be better spent in dealing with the state’s drug problems. She knows all about Arizona’s huge prison population —the state has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the U.S., and among Western states, the highest incarceration rate of them all. It doesn’t seem to her that keeping all those people in prison, like her daughter, is doing anything to help Arizona’s crime rate.
Stephanie is set to be released later in 2018. Her family, especially her kids, can’t wait to see her. She has plans to live with her mom and her daughter, and she’s already lined up work driving a forklift, and may pursue firefighting. Her sister Tracey, who got sober when Stephanie went to prison, also is ready to support her in any way she can.
For her part, Stephanie has remained focused, especially as she nears the finish line of her incarceration. “Positivity and acceptance are important to me. Above all, I am a proud mother, even from in here. I am looking forward to a second chance in life.”
The Facts: Stephanie Troy
Sentence: six years
Offense: Possession of dangerous drug for sale (methamphetamine); possession of drug paraphernalia
Priors: two misdemeanors (petty theft)
Year sentenced: 2014
Age at sentencing: 30
Projected release date: 10/22/2018