We Must Reduce Mass Incarceration In The U.S., Not Escalate It

05/20/2017 02:13 pm ET Updated May 22, 2017
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On May 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally withdrew a signature part of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative that encouraged prosecutors to target the most serious crimes and reduce the number of defendants charged with nonviolent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger harsh mandatory sentences.

To be clear, Holder was never soft on crime.  The criteria laid out in Holder’s memo stated that those protected had to fall into the following four, narrow categories:

(a) the relevant conduct didn’t involve death, violence, a threat of violence or possession of a weapon; (b) the defendant wasn’t an organizer, leader or manager of others within a criminal organization; (c) there were no ties to large-scale drug trafficking operations; and (d) the defendant didn’t have a “significant” criminal history, such as prior convictions.  

In other words, one was likely a first offender with only minor involvement or association to the drug trade; hardly a threat to society considering several former presidents fit that description, if they’d been caught.  Hence, Holder’s memo was conservative, at best.  That’s what makes Sessions directive all the more heinous.  

Responding to Sessions’ misguided efforts to escalate the drug war, Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Justice Safety Valve; bi-partisan legislation designed to curb mandatory sentences and give judges some discretion as to what sentence would be appropriate for the person standing before them.  Punishment for a crime should not be more injurious than the crime itself, which is why the Justice Safety Valve is critically important at this time to prevent many families from being destroyed. 

I was a victim of the former draconian, sentencing structure that Sessions wants to reinstate.  After serving over 9 years on drug conspiracy charges related to my former husband’s Ecstasy organization, I received clemency from President Clinton on July 7, 2000.  The reason cited by Clinton’s press secretary for my sentence commutation was “disparity of sentence” because the ring leader was only given 3 years probation from the same judge that sentenced me to over 24 years based on millions of tablets that he had manufactured and sold.  

Back when I was indicted in 1991, the conspiracy law held co-conspirators equally culpable, so even though I entered the conspiracy after he was arrested (for collecting cash in the form of drug proceeds to pay his bail) I got stuck with the sentence that Congress presumed a kingpin would receive.  Numerous politicians wrote letters supporting my clemency and some stated they never intended for the wife or girlfriend to end up with more time than the kingpin.  Nor did they think that prosecutors would cut deals that would set kingpins free.  Sadly, this is the greatest folly and misconception of mandatory sentences. Make no mistake, mandatory minimums and the conspiracy law are being used as tools by the Department of Justice to force citizens into submission using fear of long prison terms if a suspect refuses to plead guilty and become an informant.

Merely pleading guilty is not enough to warrant a sentence reduction. One must also provide “substantial assistance” by aiding the prosecution in the arrest and conviction of additional people; an ultimatum I flatly rejected. Obviously, pleading guilty and incriminating others is an easy decision when you’re the main culprit facing a life sentence for criminal behavior that you actually engaged in, such as my former husband. Conversely, I was facing “20 years to life” for illicit actions that he had committed, because the conspiracy law transfers guilt from one person to the next.

After my release from prison, I started the CAN-DO Foundation to fight for the women (and now men) I left behind who have stories similar, or more egregious than my own.  Prosecutors claim they need mandatory sentences to force minor participants to help them catch “the bad guys.”  In addition to my own case, we have a long list of cases where the “bad guys” were given leniency and are now free, at the expense of minor participants who went to trial and were hammered.  It’s commonly reported that mandatory minimums are triggered based on how much drugs a person is caught with. I disagree. There are thousands of people in prison serving long sentences who were never caught with any drugs. No tangible evidence is required to support a guilty verdict in a drug conspiracy case. Only the word of a cooperating co-conspirator is necessary. In truth, mandatory sentences are triggered the minute a person says “no” to a prosecutor. That’s who receives the full brunt of mandatory sentences that A.G. Sessions wants to ratchet up.

Out of 105 women who received clemency under President Obama, 44 were CAN-DO members that we advocated for.  Although President Obama performed much needed triage on our broken criminal justice system by using his executive clemency power, many wonderful men and women were left behind when he left office.  The climate for these individuals languishing in prison is grim.  Now comes hope in the form of the Justice Safety Valve that already has prisoners buzzing.  Some are afraid to get their hopes up for fear of being devastated, yet again. Having been in prison, my perspective is that “hope” can kick your butt, but it’s better than having no hope - and that is what Sessions brings to this nation that is desperately in need of criminal justice reform.  This time, the Justice Safety Valve must pass, the sooner the better, because the lives of many good people are hanging in the balance.  

To learn more go to www.candoclemency.com

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