Nonviolent offenders obeyed state laws, went to jail anyway

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Robby Soave Reporter
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Sharanda Jones never considered herself a criminal mastermind. Her job was just buying the cocaine powder; other members of the organization rendered it into crack cocaine and sold it. Jones owned a gun — for self-protection — but never used it.

And yet Jones, a nonviolent drug purchaser, is serving life without parole — at a cost to the taxpayers of over a million dollars.

“She was treated as a leader, and at the time she really relieved that she was minimally involved and decided to go to trial,” said Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy organization. “When you do that … if you are a leader convicted, that’s considered perjury. All of those factors bumped her sentence up and up and up.”

At issue are federal laws that compel judges to impose harsh sentences on convicted defendants. Most cover nonviolent offenses and are largely drug related.

But thanks to a growing sense among people on all sides of the political spectrum that the law should change, Congress is poised to revisit mandatory minimums. It was recently announced that the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, will get a Senate committee hearing in September.

If approved by Congress, the act would restore some measure of discretion to judges, allowing them to impose lighter sentences on nonviolent offenders when appropriate.

Supporters of criminal justice reform on the left have long held that mandatory minimums disproportionately affect minorities, people of limited financial means, and low-level offenders. Well-connected drug kingpins–the intended targets of mandatory minimum sentencing — have better information to trade to the government, and can often end up with paradoxically lower sentences than other people who are less involved in the crime.

But mandatory minimums are an increasing concern for conservatives as well. For one thing, the cost to incarcerate nonviolent offenders is simply too high.

“One out of every four Department of Justice dollars is locking up nonviolent drug offenders,” said Gill. “Half the prison population is nonviolent drug offenders.”

Liberal, conservative, and independent-leaning Americans are adopting increasingly libertarian views toward drugs, with majorities now believing that marijuana should be legal and that the federal government should permit states to set their own drug policies. Voters in several states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana use.

Still, marijuana remains illegal under federal law — a discrepancy that has allowed the federal government to prosecute people for things that aren’t crimes in the states where they live.

Jack Carpenter was a California resident who grew marijuana for personal, medicinal use. Eventually, he expanded his operation and began growing marijuana to sell to dispensaries that then sold to patients–as permitted under state law.

But under federal law, Carpenter’s actions were illegal. After he was convicted in 2010, mandatory minimums bumped his sentence up to 10 years.

Carpenter is just one of many people serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes that don’t even violate state law.

“It’s becoming a real federalism issue,” said Gill. “Should the feds even be going after people who are doing stuff that is legal under state law? I think we have seen some questionable prosecutions.”

It’s a message that may be resonating with conservatives, who have plenty of complaints about how the Obama administration has abused states’ rights on a host of other issues, including health care, the environment and education.

Though President Obama expressed support for curtailing mandatory minimums when we was still a candidate for office, he has yet to take a position on the Justice Safety Valve Act. The president’s vocal support would go a long way toward earning the bill passage, supporters say.

When the bill’s committee hearing convenes next month, Leahy plans to argue that reducing mandatory minimums is both a moral and financial necessity.

“This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty,” he said in a statement.

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