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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, in her native Alabama, the mandatory minimum for Class A felonies, including rape and kidnapping, is 10 years. Manslaughter, a Class B felony, carries a minimum of two years and a maximum of 20. The typical street-level dealer, the classification that would come closest to describing Stephanie, was sometimes in and out of county lock up the same day.

It is thus no surprise that over the years, whenever prison officials heard how long her sentence was, they would ask, “Who did you kill?”

Mothering by phone

Once Stephanie was in prison she quickly woke up on the drug issue. A 40-hour drug awareness class left an imprint. So did her fellow inmates. She saw the gaunt faces of meth addicts, the sleepiness and scratching of heroin addicts.

She played cards with women who were still addicted to crack after eight or 10 years in prison. They could taste it in their mouths, they said. They went to sleep early because the cravings grew more intense late at night. It wasn’t long before she became a strong anti-drug advocate. The more she saw, the more she worried about her own kids. But beyond her 15-minute calls and intermittent visits, there was little she could do.

She knew it would be years until she could be with her children again, but she was still their mother. So she used the phone. Usually she called her mom’s house because her kids would all congregate there in the afternoons. She would talk to each child.

She paid for her own calls with the $1.65 an hour she earned working in prison. Calls were 23 cents a minute with a 15-minute limit per call and 300 minutes maximum per month. She always used up every minute.

She talked to her kids about life, about school, about sex, about drugs. She urged a 17-year-old boy to buck up and get out the house: “Life doesn’t stop because I’m in prison,” she said.

Later she would urge another 17-year old, her daughter, to wait to have a child.

“You don’t want to mess with kids now. Get your education first,” she said, the voice of experience.

“I knew if they talked a lot, things were OK,” she says. “But if they were quiet, something was wrong.”

She didn’t tell her kids how long her sentence was, fearing it would break their hearts. They found out on the street. At first, they resented her for not telling them. Later, they understood.

“They were so young,” she said. “How can you tell a child that you got 30 years?”

Tough on crime

Critics of mandatory minimums often say that we tend to “imprison people we are mad at, not just people we are afraid of.” But in the 1980s when mandatory minimums came into vogue, that distinction often blurred.

Mandatory minimums came into vogue at a time when violent crime was climbing. Homicide rates spiked 83 percent from 8.7 per 100,000 in 1985 to 15.9 in 1993. While victims and offenders were disproportionately young, black, male and geographically concentrated, crime fears became widespread and politically potent.

Often, new sentencing rules were spurred by some specific, horrible event, said Don Stern, who served as U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts from 1993 to 2001. The murders of two young girls by repeat offenders, for example, drove momentum for 1994 California’s Three Strikes Law.

The mid-1980s saw the sudden emergence of crack cocaine — cheap, lucrative and suddenly pervasive on the streets. Battles over turf for crack markets led to violence, and the 1986 overdose death of Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball star who had just been drafted by the Boston Celtics, fed a widespread perception that crack cocaine was much more dangerous than powder.

That perception of higher danger led to the extreme sentencing differences between crack and powder, Stern said, with crack getting 10 times the severity of powder in federal law.

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