The lobbyist and the crack dealer

Kevin Ring President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
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When the second jury to hear my case found me guilty of committing five felonies related to my lobbying activities under Jack Abramoff, I was in a daze for a while. My biggest concern was what impact it would have on my two young daughters. I remained convinced of my innocence and knew I would appeal the verdict, but the prospect of serving time in prison became very real. Most of my friends offered sincere words of encouragement, but I began to realize that they couldn’t know exactly what I was feeling. The idea of going to prison seems like one of those things in life that you cannot truly get your head around until you are forced by circumstances to do so.

My friend Stephanie was more helpful. She reminded me that through my two trials my focus had been on the well-being of my girls and that same focus was what should guide me as I faced an admittedly frightening future. A mother of four children of her own, Stephanie said that any separation would be hardest on the kids and so to prepare myself — and them — for how best to cope. In these and other ways, she continually reminded me (without saying so directly) not to get bogged down in self-pity, which would help no one, but to confront the situation head-on.

Her practical advice was not devoid of compassion. Stephanie, like other friends, told me she would do everything she could to ensure my girls had the love and support they needed. She asked me what sizes they were — because she loved to shop and wanted to make sure that my girls had a couple of nice dresses to wear for special occasions while I wasn’t around.

This story might seem unremarkable except for one fact: I have never “met” Stephanie. She was sharing these words of advice and encouragement over email from Coleman Federal Prison in Florida. Stephanie has been in prison since 1990, serving a 30-year sentence for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine around Mobile, Alabama.

I came across Stephanie’s case while working for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and reached out to her because I simply couldn’t believe there wasn’t more to the story. Stephanie was barely 20 years old when she met a man who promised to help her make ends meet for her young children if she helped him identify business contacts in the Mobile, Alabama area. His business was selling crack cocaine and he was new to the area. Stephanie was a local.

Stephanie made a terrible mistake borne out of poor judgment and need, not greed. She helped the man for just over a month, made a little money and moved her family to Massachusetts. The man, however, was soon arrested and cooperated with authorities by, among other things, testifying against Stephanie.

At age 23, Stephanie, a first-time, non-violent drug offender whose criminal career lasted just over a month, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She has been in prison since 1990. (Stop and think about that for a moment: Where were you and what were you doing in 1990? Think about how long ago that was.)

Thanks to Congress’s approval last year of the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that finally reduced excessive penalties for crack-related crimes, and to the U.S. Sentencing Commission for making its crack guideline adjustments retroactive, Stephanie had her sentenced reduced to time served.

On Monday, after serving 21 years in prison, Stephanie Nodd will walk out of prison a free woman. Over the next several weeks, she will spend her first Thanksgiving and Christmas with her now-grown children in more than two decades.

I am happy for my friend. She did not need 30 years in prison to learn a lesson from her mistake. In fact, she didn’t need 21, 15 or even 10 years to pay her debt to society. And to think she was sentenced to such an unjust term to deter others requires you to accept that her life was expendable, that it was somehow okay to sacrifice her family for the greater good. The thought makes me sick.

I cannot deny that my feelings of outrage about Stephanie’s sentence are enhanced by the government’s initial sentencing recommendation in my case: life in prison. They later changed the recommendation to 17-22 years, and then to five years. (Fortunately, the judge imposed a far shorter sentence.) This personal experience forced me to think about the amount of time we are locking up first-time, non-violent offenders in this country.

Thanks to Stephanie (and from my work at FAMM), I know that too many people are being sentenced to excessive prison terms for undeniably stupid (but not violent) mistakes. I am so thankful that Stephanie was able to avoid devolving into bitterness and despair despite spending 21 years in jail, and instead was able to show concern and compassion for a stranger with whom she had very little in common.

Stephanie has resolved to use her experiences to help others. She wants to help young people avoid repeating her youthful mistakes. In addition, she wants to help educate the public and policymakers about our severe and nonsensical sentencing laws. For those of us lucky enough to call Stephanie a friend, we are just happy that she gets to begin this new phase of her life on Monday.

Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Maryland. He previously served on Capitol Hill as counsel to then-Senator John Ashcroft; executive director of the Republican Study Committee; and legislative director to former Congressman John Doolittle.