Congress may take up bipartisan legislation to reform federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws any day now. These laws have torn apart families and communities, wasted billions of dollars, and failed to make the country safer. I know about their impact on families firsthand.
Twenty-six years ago, my brother was convicted for growing marijuana in his garage in Washington State. Back then no policymakers were talking about legalizing marijuana, much less doing it. My brother was guilty and my parents and I understood that he would have to be held accountable. On the other hand, my brother was a first offender and he wasn't a major trafficker or kingpin, but he ended up being treated like one. Because of the mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress in the 1980s, the judge had no discretion but to sentence my brother to five-years in prison, without parole.
I was stunned to learn that the judge no longer controlled the sentence, and I was angry that this kind of clear injustice could happen in our country. I was convinced that if others heard about how these one-size-fits-all sentences were being used, the public would rise up and demand that Congress repeal them. So in 1991, I started a nonprofit organization focused on telling the stories of the families directly harmed by them.
The stories flooded in. Before long, I met a woman in Indianapolis whose brother was sentenced to life in prison for selling marijuana. I learned of a young Alabama mother who was sentenced to serve 30 years in federal prison for playing a very minor, non-violent role in her boyfriend's drug distribution operation for one month. Every day, I found myself outraged and heartbroken by each new story. But I was inspired by the dignity, passion, and grace of the parents, children, and loved ones who came forward to share their stories.
These families made up the army of our new organization, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). For the next 25 years, we went anywhere and everywhere we could to tell the politicians how mandatory sentencing laws were needlessly destroying families and communities. Our pleas often fell on deaf ears in an era when being "tough on crime" and talk of "superpredators" won elections and was a popular refrain.
Back then, Democrats like President Bill Clinton joined Republicans in supporting a massive crime bill that lengthened prison sentences, imposed mandatory minimums and accelerated the unprecedented growth in our nation's prison population. Today, former President Clinton concedes that the bill went too far, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has apologized for the "superpredator" language she used to rally support for the bill.
Conservatives who once touted long prison sentences for both violent and non-violent crime now urge lawmakers to find a better balance. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, has said that requiring severe mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders is "the most urgent problem facing America's criminal justice system." Republican leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have expressed support for rolling back drug mandatory minimum laws.
What caused this sea change? People across the ideological spectrum began to realize the significant human and financial cost to our country. Our nation spends close to 80 billion dollars on incarcerating people and 50 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses - 80 percent of which are non-violent offenses.
Even law enforcement leaders are joining a chorus of voices for change. Former Bush administration attorney general Michael Mukasey has joined current attorney general Loretta Lynch in urging Congress to pass sentencing reform, writing "[L]ocking up low-level offenders for long prison sentences doesn't reduce crime... Research shows that longer sentences can often increase recidivism, especially for low-level offenders."
There is a growing consensus that reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws will make the public safer and save tax payers money. States that repealed or reformed their mandatory sentencing laws have seen their crime rates and their prison populations decrease. They are getting more safety for less money -- a win-win for taxpayers.
The laws are slowly changing. Thousands of first-time, low-level offenders are now exempted from excessive federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Thousands more who were sentenced to prison terms Congress repudiated received retroactive relief and were able to rejoin their families early. Tens of thousands of small-scale drug offenders and addicts in Michigan, Georgia, Massachusetts, and many other states now receive more reasonable sentences.
Our work is far from done. Even if Congress passes the sentencing reform bill presently before it, too many low-level offenders will receive unnecessarily long prison sentences. In far too many states, draconian mandatory minimums for minor non-violent offenses remain and many of the reforms are not retroactive leaving thousands behind still incarcerated for a low level non-violent offense.
But for the first time in 25 years, momentum is now on our side. I am confident that in the not-too-distant future, people who make mistakes and break the law will be punished as individuals -with sentences that fit their crimes.
Julie Stewart is the president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums