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Increase Options for Sentencing Relief

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Nineteen years ago this week, Stephanie George's financial desperation and bad judgment caught up with her. She was arrested for the first time for illegal drug possession. Four years and three arrests later, she was sentenced at the age of 26 to spend the rest of her life in prison - a sentence she is still serving. Stephanie George broke the law repeatedly and deserved time in prison. Yet the fact that she was sentenced to life in prison (with no chance of parole) demonstrates that the options in federal law designed to prevent excessive criminal sentences, known as "safety valves", are not accomplishing that goal and should be enhanced.

When Stephanie graduated from high school, she moved out on her own and took on a number of different jobs to support herself. Unfortunately, she couldn't make enough to make ends meet. Before long Stephanie found a way to keep company and pay her bills: she dated several men who were involved in selling drugs and occasionally delivered and sold drugs and took messages for them.

On October 26, 1993, police arrested Stephanie after she was found sitting on the front porch of a house next to a bag that contained cocaine residue. She confessed that she had crack in her possession and surrendered it to the officers. She received probation. A few weeks later, a confidential informant was sent to buy drugs from Stephanie. He made two small purchases a couple weeks apart, totaling $160. After the last buy, officers searched Stephanie's residence and found four pieces of crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Stephanie was fined and sentenced to nine months in jail.

Sadly, Stephanie wasn't done. Nearly three years later, police raided her residence and found 500 grams of powder cocaine and nearly $14,000 in an attic safe belonging to Stephanie's former boyfriend, Michael. Michael had the key to the safe and confessed to police that the money, the cocaine and the other paraphernalia they found belonged to him. He said the $800 he had on him was from 500 grams of crack he had already sold. Later, Michael would testify that he paid Stephanie to let him reside and store crack at her house. At the time of her arrest, Stephanie had no cash, no bank account, and owned no other property besides her car.

Stephanie was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute. At sentencing, Stephanie was held accountable for all of the drugs found at the house, including the 500 grams of cocaine Michael said he sold. Everyone knew that, with these quantities of illegal drugs and Stephanie's past convictions, the judge was going to sentence her to a lengthy prison sentence. No one could have imagined how lengthy. Because of her 1993 drug offenses, Stephanie was categorized as a "career criminal," a designation that triggers a mandatory life sentence. Because there is no parole in the federal system, 26-year-old Stephanie George was sentenced to die in prison.

Judge Roger Vinson, a Reagan appointee, said at sentencing, "There's no question that Ms. George deserved to be punished. The only question is whether it should be a mandatory life sentence ... I wish I had another alternative." Addressing Stephanie, Judge Vinson said, "Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing for a number of years ... your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder. So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn't warrant a life sentence."

Unfortunately, his judgment didn't matter. Mandatory minimum sentences eliminate a judge's discretion to set a sentence that fits an individual defendant. They do not allow distinctions between a "girlfriend and bag holder" and a kingpin. As a result, Stephanie has been incarcerated for over 14 years. She has been a model prisoner, actively participating in vocational and educational training and working hard at her prison job.

There are two options, known as "safety valves", in federal law to prevent an individual from enduring a clearly excessive prison sentence. The first is found in the U.S. Constitution. Article II, Section 2 gives the president exclusive authority to grant clemency, including commutations. This is a powerful sentence-correcting tool, but sadly, the existing presidential clemency process seems to have ground to a halt. Fearful that efforts to correct both individual and systemic injustices will be deemed "soft on crime," recent presidents have granted few commutations. (President Obama has granted only one.)

Clemency applicants frequently wait years for a response. Most are denied with little or no explanation - or for reasons that seem subjective and inconsistent. Most recently, a study by ProPublica and the Washington Post found marked racial disparities among pardon recipients and raised ethical questions about the Justice Department office that handles clemency requests.

The other safety valve was created by Congress in 1994. This provision allows courts to give a drug offender less time in prison than the mandatory minimum requires, but only if he and his offense meet certain requirements. For example, the defendant must have little to no criminal history. If he has ever committed another felony (or even a crime like careless driving), regardless of its relevance to his current offense, he cannot qualify for the current safety valve. The result is that even a completely nonviolent, low-level criminal history can make an offender like Stephanie ineligible for the existing safety valve.

Both of these safety valves can be improved so that individuals are punished, but not over-punished, and so that taxpayers are not forced to pay millions to imprison people who pose no threat to public safety.

First, the president should demand that the Justice Department provide him a list of individuals, like Stephanie George, who have already paid a high price for their crimes so that he can commute their sentences. The president should also reform the pardon process to ensure greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability.

Second, Congress should replace the existing safety valve with a broader provision that gives courts discretion in more cases. Stephanie George does not need to die in prison, and her judge knew it. But because of the mandatory minimum sentence and the narrow, existing safety valve, he could not fashion a more appropriate sentence. A broader safety valve would allow judges to eliminate unwarranted disparity in sentencing by making sure that "a girlfriend and bag holder" does not get the same sentence as the drug kingpins Congress targeted with mandatory minimums.