In a significant shift of law enforcement priorities, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that he would order all federal prosecutors to avert charges that carry harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenders. “It’s clear — as we come together today — that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” he said at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. Holder’s announcement will spare some drug defendants overly punitive mandatory minimum prison sentences with no opportunity for early release, and signifies public rejection of over-incarceration. But it will take an act of Congress and more state reforms to end the system that has filled our jails with people like these:
The man who sold his own pain pills to an informant: John Horner had no record of drug-dealing when he was sentenced to a 25-year mandatory minimum prison term for selling some of his own pain pills to an undercover informant who befriended him and told him he could not afford both his rent and his prescription medication. Horner, a fast-food restaurant worker and a father, had been prescribed the pain medication because of an injury in which he lost an eye, according to a BBC report. If, as expected, he serves all 25 years, Horner will be 72 when he is released, and he will have spent more time in prison than the former Enron CEO who was convicted in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history. In the vicious cycle of snitches and informants that plagues the criminal justice sentence, it was another individual trying to mitigate his own sentence who lured Horner into a drug deal by first befriending him and then appealing to his generosity.
The nominal player who earned a triple life sentence: Clarence Aaron was sentenced to three life-in-prison terms for his nominal role in a cocaine deal of introducing two dealers to one another for a fee of $1,500. It was the amount of drugs and money involved in the overall deal that dictated his sentence, and because several other defendants snitched away their charges, Aaron was handed the highest sentence of all. Aaron’s sentence was the result of wheeling and dealing by more experienced players who made Aaron the scapegoat. But it also resulted from a “conspiracy amendment” to federal mandatory minimum law that allows the lowest person in a so-called drug conspiracy to receive the maximum sentence, according to PBS. Aaron has twice applied to have his federal sentence shortened through the presidential pardon power to commute unjust sentences. But he and countless others have had their petitions denied, in part because his application was mishandled by the Obama administration, which has used its federal clemency power less often than any other president in modern history.
The medical marijuana grower: Chris Williams was running a Montana medical marijuana dispensary that was considered a model of compliance with state law when his dispensary was raided by federal agents. Unlike his fellow dispensary owners, Williams did not take a plea deal, determined to take his case to trial. The very lowest mandatory minimum drug sentence was five years in jail. But these sentences can quickly ratchet up when other factors come into play. In Williams’ case, because he kept a gun on the premises, prosecutors were able to charge Williams with four counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, and he faced a sum total mandatory minimum sentence of 85 years. Williams was found guilty for distributing a drug that remains federally illegal. But in a rare move, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen urged the parties to reach a post-conviction plea deal to avert the 85-year sentence. Prosecutors agreed to drop all the gun charges, leaving Williams with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence that he accepted in the hopes of seeing his 16-year-old son’s college graduation. As Christensen doled out the lowest sentence he could — five years — he lamented that even after his intervention, the prison term was “unfair and absurd.” While many other dispensary owners have brokered plea deals, others who have gone to trial have faced mandatory minimums of ten years. During his remarks Monday, Holder said nothing about whether the federal government will alter its policy of selectively prosecuting state-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries.
The low-level courier: Jamel Dossie was a 20-year-old drug user whose father had a drug abuse history, and whose bus driver mother alone raised him and his two siblings in Brownsville. Brooklyn. On four occasions, he ferried money and crack between dealers, for a total payment of $140. Solely because of the quantity of drugs involved, and because he had previous offenses for possession, he received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. In sentencing him, Judge John Gleeson said, “Dossie would have had access to justice if he had not been charged with the five-year mandatory minimum enacted for drug business managers. But he caught two bad breaks. First, as the prosecutor pointed out at his sentencing, two of his four crack sales happened to exceed the threshold quantity of 28 grams that can trigger the five-year mandatory minimum. They only barely exceeded it … but just as baseball is a game of inches, our drug-offense mandatory minimum provisions create a deadly serious game of grams. … Dossie’s second bad break occurred when the government chose to cite the mandatory minimum provision in the indictment.”
“Guilty by association:” Mandy Martinson had slid into meth addiction after living with an abusive boyfriend. When she left her boyfriend, she moved in with a drug dealer who had a steady supply of methamphetamine. After a police search of their home, they were both charged and Mandy’s boyfriend testified against her at trial, saying that she assisted him, and that she possessed the gun found in the home. Ultimately, she was charged as both a conspirator and with possession of the gun, yielding a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, while her boyfriend was given just 12 years, even though the judge acknowledged at sentencing that she was subject to her boyfriend’s direction and control. “Upon obtaining reasonable drug treatment and counseling and in the wake of what she is facing now, the Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future,” the judge said. But those sentenced to mandatory minimums are typically not eligible for parole.