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Sentencing reform, before it was popular

Sentencing reform, before it was popular
© Greg Nash

Criminal justice reform has become a celebrated cause in Washington, uniting figures on the left and right and creating momentum for legislation in Congress.

But it wasn’t always that way.

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Julie Stewart began a crusade to change the justice system 25 years ago when she started Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) after her brother was sentenced to five years without parole for growing marijuana in his garage.

In an interview with The Hill, Stewart recalled the “dry years” when her advocacy often fell on deaf ears. 

“I would go to the Hill and talk to members of Congress about it, and they would either have absolutely no interest in reforming sentencing laws or they might privately say to me, ‘I think you’re right. This makes sense, but it would be a death knell for me politically if I supported this,’ ” she recounted.

“I was somewhat naive, although I think that’s probably a good thing, because if I had known it would take 25 years to get to this point, I probably wouldn’t have started,” she said.

Stewart’s group is among several in Washington hoping their years of struggle will soon culminate in the first rollback of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in decades.

“We were a lone voice, and now we’re a chorus,” Stewart said of other groups that have joined the fight.

Passage of reform legislation, however, remains far from guaranteed.

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Stewart is no stranger to such skepticism, having faced it her entire career as an advocate.

She recalled one meeting from the early years, in particular, when she brought her mother to see ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

“He just didn’t agree,” she said. “I’m bringing my mom in, and it’s her son in prison, and he just didn’t care.”

She describes the meeting in the mid-to-late ’90s as “ironic” now.

Cunningham’s 15-year political career came to an end in 2005 when he pleaded guilty to taking part in a massive bribery scheme that involved $2.4 million and a party yacht.

He served eights years in federal prison for his crimes — one year at the FCI Butner Low, a low-security federal correctional institute in North Carolina, and seven at a prison camp in Tucson, Ariz.

Now released, Cunningham has changed his tune on sentencing reform and told The Hill in an interview that he remembers the meeting with Stewart.

“At the time … the people I talked to on my side of the aisle said you needed mandatory minimums, because if criminals knew they were facing a mandatory minimum they wouldn’t commit those crimes,” he said. “I’ve talked to hundreds of criminals, and that’s just not the case.”

Cunningham, who spent his time in prison teaching GED classes, said he’d love the opportunity to come back to Washington and talk to his former Republican colleagues about the need for reform.

“I’ve volunteered to go back and tell them what it’s like, what I have seen with my own eyes in the system,” he said. “I would encourage them to go into the prisons.”

Other groups involved in criminal justice reform praise FAMM’s work, saying the group has changed the debate by highlighting the lives that have been ruined by mandatory minimums.

Nancy La Vigne, chair of the Crime & Justice Research Alliance and director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, compared FAMM to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“I think it’s because so many people have been touched by incarceration, the net has widened to such an extent that, I dare say, all of us know someone or knows someone who knows someone caught up in the system,” she said. “It’s not six degrees of separation, it’s one or two. It humanizes it in a way we didn’t see 15 to 20 years ago. … FAMM had a hand in humanizing it.”

Stewart and FAMM have long made personal stories a focal point of their lobbying effort.

In meetings with lawmakers and congressional staff, the group often recounts cases such as a woman who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for telling someone on the phone where they could find her boyfriend to buy LSD; the case of a 40-year-old first-time offender who was sentenced to life without parole on cocaine conspiracy charges; and the case of a 21-year-old who was sentenced to life in prison for a crack charge.   

“When I was a kid, a murderer went to prison for 20 years and we thought, ‘Wow. That’s a lot of time.’ Now they’re sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison for 20 years, 30 years, life without parole and people don’t blink,” she said. “So it’s really hard to get people and legislators to sort of turn the ship around and go back to the idea of thinking that one year in prison is a pretty stiff punishment, five years is really significant.”

Reducing mandatory minimum sentences now has strong support from Democrats, the White House and some Republicans, but it’s unclear whether the Senate will find a path forward on legislation.

Before the Senate broke for its two-week spring recess, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGOP senators raise concerns about babies on Senate floor House passes series of bills to improve IRS Senators, staffers lament the end of 50 Most Beautiful MORE (R-Utah) predicted sentencing reform legislation wouldn’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote. Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he’s still working to secure more Republican support.

“What we’ve done is try to overcome some obstacles that have existed for three or four months,” he said.

Groups like the Brennan Center’s Justice Program at New York University Law School fear the battle over President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee could push legislation into the next Congress.

“The same Judiciary Committee members who have come across party lines are the same ones who have strong differences of opinion on the nomination [of Garland],” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan program. “They should not let fighting over one topic derail consensus on another.”

Even if one of the reform bills in the mix were to pass, Stewart said there would still be more work to do.

“Our bottom line is to repeal mandatory minimum sentences,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”

In the interim, FAMM is directly working on an Eighth Amendment challenge that Stewart said could reach the Supreme Court.

“It would be a lot easier for the court to rule that mandatory minimums are unconstitutional for some reason and for Congress to say, ‘Oh, OK,’ and that’s it,” she said.

But Stewart believes Congress will get there one day on its own.

“I honestly believe it’s just a matter of time,” she said. “I don’t want it to take another 25 years, and I don’t think it will.”

- Updated at 9:42 a.m.