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Parenting from prison: The collateral damage of harsh mandatory sentences

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

But in fact, the Commission’s four Democrats and three Republicans had in September unanimously endorsed efforts to revamp mandatory minimums, arguing that few of those caught up are actually major players and that they “are unevenly applied, leading to unintended consequences.” The Commission thanked the Senate Judiciary Committee in that statement, including Senator Leahy, Senator Durbin and Senator Lee by name, for proposing “legislation corresponding to many of our key recommendations.”

NAAUSA did not respond to request for an interview.

Pressure to perjure

In the mandatory minimums regime, all the discretion previously held by judges now belongs to the prosecutor. Federal prosecutors have a fearsome 98 percent win rate at trial. Combined with extreme sentences, this gives them enormous leverage. Plead guilty and implicate someone in exchange for a lighter sentence. Maintain innocence and refuse to offer up other targets, and face a stiff minimum sentences when you lose.

Stephanie could have had a much shorter sentence. Stephanie herself had been snagged when her former associate and two women she hardly knew testified against her in exchange for leniency.

Prosecutors offered Stephanie a bargain if she would testify against others. They repeatedly suggested names, including two in Florida whom she had never met. The pressure to get out by putting someone else in was intense. But she refused: “I wanted to take care of my own problems,” she said.

She also refused to plead guilty to excessive charges. She says she confessed to everything she had done, but she would not confess to more than that. So she went to trial, took to the witness stand, and set her word against theirs. She lost, as the prosecutors knew she would.

Home at last

After 21 years in prison, Stephanie was released in 2011 under the retroactive crack cocaine sentencing revisions. In November of 2011 she walked out of a federal prison near Orlando, Fla., into arms of her sister, her best friend, and Jasmineh, the adult daughter who had been born after Stephanie arrived in prison.

The four women stopped in Tampa to shop for clothes. Then they drove the seven hours to Mobile, back to the same home where she had been raised. It is now owned by her brother. Family and friends swarmed her as she stepped out of the car.

“When I got into bed that night,” she said, “I lay there thinking about my mama and how everything had changed. I thought about the girls in prison, wishing they were home, and that made me sad. Then I said a little prayer asking God to please continue watching over those in prison and to keep them strong, and I fell asleep.”

Today, Stephanie does billing and sales for a local furniture store, a job she has held for two years. Mostly, she loves being with her children and grandchildren. The grandchildren all belong to her boys. Jasmineh, now 22, has been dating her boyfriend for five years, but is not having kids any time soon.

“I’m waiting for marriage,” she said, “You never know what’s going to happen. I want to have a family, but I want them to be secure. I want to be able to take care of them.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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