David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 3/1/02
While DRCNet's founding purpose is to bring about an end to drug prohibition, in the meantime we believe it is important to engage the drug war in its current excessive and violent form, and to support the work of organizations involved with reform efforts that have a chance of political success in the shorter term.
Last weekend, I attended the national workshop of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (http://www.famm.org), a roughly ten year old organization devoted to sentencing reform, principally repeal of the draconian mandatory minimum sentences that send minor, nonviolent offenders to prison for years or often decades. I have been attending the now bi-yearly FAMM gatherings since 1995. They are a sobering dose of reality for anyone involved with or interested in drug policy reform.
This year was no exception. Last Friday, immediately after hitting the button to send last week's newsletter, I headed over and arrived in time for the first day's lunch. I sat down and exchanged greetings and introductions with the others at my table. To my right sat a woman whose brother had initially been sentenced to 10 years. The judge felt the sentence was unjust and imposed it only because the law required him to do so, but urged him to appeal and wished him luck. He didn't have the kind of luck the judge was hoping for -- on resentencing, the prosecutor dredged up an old minor charge from when her brother was 17 years old, getting his sentence enhanced to 20 years. And while her and her brother's story may have been the worst at the table, other stories were scarcely comforting. To her right, for example, sat a couple whose son is facing another 8 1/2 years on his sentence. I didn't find out how long he has been incarcerated already.
The other situations at the table were happier, but only because of the amount of time that has gone by. To my left sat an old friend whose son was recently released after a lengthy sentence. Across the table sat another friend whose son, seated to her right, was released since the last time we met. It is heartening to see people finally set free, even more so that they and their loved ones remain part of the fight. But hard prison time is indelibly written into their pasts.
One of the most dramatic portions of the conference was the screening of "Guilt By Association," Court TV's first original movie, telling the story of an innocent woman caught up in the Orwellian web of federal drug conspiracy laws, sentenced to 20 years for the activity of a marijuana ring of which her former boyfriend was a part, twice as much time as any member of the actual offenders. The basis of the conviction was that she sometimes took phone messages for her boyfriend on unspecified topics.
While the individual story -- which ends with a presidential pardon after six years by President Clinton -- is a composite of a number of different cases, it is both reasonable and representative of a large class of real-world cases. Anyone who doesn't believe that should attend the next FAMM conference and meet the people intimately involved in some of them.
Other than a few cosmetic changes, in fact -- such as FAMM president Julie Stewart, a tall brunette, being played by a short blonde woman, and the real world FAMM's Monica Pratt changing into Mark McNamara for the big screen -- the movie is devastatingly realistic in both overview and its portrayal of the details of cases and prison life. It is premiering on Court TV on the evening of Wednesday, March 13.
While we carry on the effort to change our nation's misbegotten drug laws, it is important to remember that hundreds of thousands of people languish in our jails and prisons who don't deserve such treatment. People who faced 10 year sentences when I first got involved in this are only now starting to get out, and others are facing 20, 30, even life. Only a change in the laws can help that last group of people before their time runs out. Such a change must come to pass, and soon. It's time to lose patience with the drug war.