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Parenting from prison: The collateral damage of harsh mandatory sentences

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Today, the future of mandatory minimum sentences stands at a crossroads. Movement has been slow, even glacial, but more and more of the ice is cracking. At first, budget concerns spurred the shift, says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “but lately there has been a shift in thinking, perhaps a moral shift, in how law enforcement, legislators and the public look at who should be behind bars.”

The crime

People often asked Stephanie how she ended up in prison. She didn't fit the mold. Unlike most of her cellmates, she never used drugs. She didn't drink, had never even smoked tobacco. None of that interested her. But she was naïve, and had no real idea what drugs did to people, or how addiction controlled and destroyed lives.

When she was a teenager, she said, honest work had been hard to come by in Mobile, and a boyfriend’s influence amidst a street culture awash in crack cocaine had sucked her in to a life of crime.

She sold crack off and on for a couple of years. That she admits. When she was 20, she briefly helped coach a new dealer from Tampa learning the ropes of the Mobile market. She never handled, sold or transported drugs while helping him, she says. Once she did pick up some cash. Six weeks later, she ended the association and moved to Boston.

That brief association would haunt her. That associate was later swept up in a federal drug sting, and to lower his own sentence he accused others, including Stephanie, inflating her role in the drug ring significantly. By the time the prosecutors were done, what Stephanie insists was a brief advisory role had ballooned into kingpin status. She was charged with 18 kilos of cocaine, moving her into major player status under federal law. Those heightened charges, she insists to this day, were false.

Disputed testimony

With mandatory minimums as their chief weapon, critics argue, prosecutors are tempted to pile heavy drug weight burdens on low-level defendants to force their cooperation, forcing them to plead guilty and implicate others in exchange for leniency. Conviction will often hinge on disputed testimony offered by a witness motivated by something other than telling the truth.

“The easiest lie to tell is in a drug case,” said Leonard Goodman, a prominent Chicago area defense attorney. “In a murder case there are known facts: a time of death, a body, a cause.”

But with drugs, the entire case often hinges on what people say, and federal prosecutors are deft at making it clear what they want, he said.

“They’ll interview these people 18 times,” Goodman said, “and they’ll keep asking, ‘Was so-and-so there, too?’ It doesn’t take them long to figure out what they want them to say.”

Proving false testimony is rare. In 2010, Goodman had a stroke of luck when a prosecution witness told a detailed lie that placed his client in a place he could never have been. The conviction was overturned, with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals holding on appeal that “the government’s star witness had testified falsely, that the government knew this testimony was false, and that the government relied upon it to secure the defendants’ convictions.”

“But the same prosecutor is still working on this case,” Goodman said. A prosecutor who can suffer no career consequences after the 7th Circuit body slams her for knowingly using false testimony, he argues, has no incentive to play straight.

Who did you kill?

But even if Stephanie was guilty as charged, her sentence would by any measure be extreme. In 1988, she was handed a 30-year sentence for a first-time nonviolent offense, a sentence designed for violent drug kingpins leading gangs and cocaine smuggling rings. Federal law has no parole, just a 15 percent “good time” reduction. The minimum she would serve would be 25 ½ years.

The average convicted rapist in the era in which Stephanie was convicted served 5.4 years of a 12-year sentence, said a 1992 U.S. Justice Department study.

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