In 1990, Julie Stewart was public affairs director at the Cato Institute when she learned of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Her brother had been arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State, pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but the mandatory minimum law left him no choice.
Motivated by her family’s experience, Julie founded FAMM in 1991. The organization is committed to nonpartisanship and embraces the value of racial, cultural, and political diversity in its advocacy. FAMM’s greatest asset has always been the stories of its members. By sharing the impact of unjust sentencing and prison policies on incarcerated individuals, their families, and their communities, FAMM has helped create urgency around the issue and made the problem feel real to policymakers who have to be moved to make meaningful change.
Because of FAMM’s work, more than 500,000 Americans have received shorter, fairer prison sentences. This success has not only reduced unnecessary suffering for incarcerated people, but also for their family members who have to serve the sentence along with their incarcerated loved one.
Some of FAMM’s biggest successes include:
- Enactment of federal legislation to reform sentencing and prison policies, including the 1994 drug sentencing safety valve, the Fair Sentencing Act, and the First Step Act of 2018;
- Repeal or reform of drug mandatory minimum sentences in multiple states, including Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Iowa;
- Numerous improvements to the federal sentencing guidelines, including several to reduce the severity of punishments for low-level drug offenses that were made retroactive, such as changes to the crack guidelines in 2009 and the all-drugs-minus-two reform of 2014;
- Serving as a founding member of Clemency Project 2014, one of the biggest pro bono mobilizations in history; which resulted in more than 1,700 people receiving sentence commutations from President Barack Obama;
- Successful advocacy at the US Supreme Court in major cases, including Booker v. United States, which returned significant sentencing authority to judges; and
- Recruitment and training of hundreds of impacted family members to be advocates for justice reform in their communities.
These victories, along with the successes of FAMM’s allies, have resulted in significant progress over the past 15 years. During that time, FAMM and its partners have:
- Reduced the nation’s prison population by approximately 200,000 people;
- Decreased racial disparities and cut the Black prison population to its lowest level since 1989; and
- Saved taxpayers billions of dollars.
In 2017, Kevin Ring, a former congressional staffer and federal lobbyist who served 16 months in federal prison, succeeded Julie Stewart as president of FAMM. Under Ring’s leadership, the organization broadened its mission to include prison reform, expanded its advocacy in the states, and sharpened its focus on recruiting and training family advocates.
In 2020, FAMM took many steps to help people in prison and their families respond to the spread of COVID-19, most notably, with an emergency effort to match federal prisoners with pro bono attorneys in order to apply for compassionate release. More than 1,500 people in federal prison were granted early release.
To learn more about our work, read about our ongoing state and federal projects.