National Edition

Parenting from prison: The collateral damage of harsh mandatory sentences

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

“I’ve never been to a community meeting where a community group said, ‘Go easier on crime,’” Stern said. “I only know the ones where they say, 'The cops know who the dealers are.’ It’s always popular to be tough on crime. It’s less popular to be fair or smart.”

At a crossroads

Reaction against extreme mandatory sentences formed early, but it took decades to become mainstream.

In 1986, the Sentencing Project launched a high-profile nonprofit research and advocacy effort focused on supporting defense attorney and promoting alternatives to prison.

Another early mover was Families Against Mandatory Minimums, formed in 1991 when the tough sentencing era was still in its booming growth phase. FAMM organizes families of prisoners, tells their stories and lobbies for change. It also helps craft legislative change at state and federal levels.

Such efforts have long had allies on the left, but in recent years they have been joined by potent voices on the right, especially a new breed of libertarian-leaning Republicans.

A key force here is a Texas group called Right on Crime, which counts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist among its strongest supporters.

“It’s really striking,” the Sentencing Project’s Jeremy Haile told the New York Times, speaking of conservative thought leaders. “Now they’re arguing the other way: who can be the smartest on crime.”

Texas has been especially active, passing sweeping reforms in 2007 and dramatically trimming its prison population. By shifting nonviolent offenders to alternate programs, Texas has moved from needing to quickly build more prisons in 2006 to closing prisons today.

In 2010 Congress lowered the federal mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine, bringing them in more line with powder cocaine penalties. In the summer of 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission made that change retroactive. Stephanie was released a few months later — after 21 years into her sentence, but four years “early.”

Last month the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois. The bill would ratchet down some mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The bill won broad support from the committee.

Evolving public opinion may be smoothing these policy shifts. For decades, as Stern observed, the public has had an unslakable a thirst for stronger sentences. But multiple polls now suggest attitudes have shifted. A Reason Foundation poll in December, for example, found that 71 percent now favor eliminating mandatory minimums in favor of giving judges more discretion in sentencing.

Serious criminals?

Still, many prosecutors and traditional Republicans argue that the mandatory sentences are critical to building successful drug-trafficking investigations. And those who get heavy penalties, they say, are usually hardened criminals.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee took on mandatory minimums in January, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys defended the system.

“They reach to only the most serious crimes,” their letter read. “They target the most serious criminals. They provide us leverage to secure cooperation from defendants. They help to establish uniform [sic] and consistency in sentencing.”

The NAAUSA letter further argued that the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission was still weighing the mandatory minimums issue, and that Congress should wait to act until after the commission had offered its judgment.

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