Ex-prisoner’s reform

Ex-prisoner’s reform
© Greg Nash

Kevin Ring remembers when they turned the lights off his first night in prison.

He was lying in his upper bunk, above a 70-year-old serving a sentence for bank fraud and down the wing from a 50-year-old meth kingpin. When the lights went out, someone yelled, “Goodnight, Kevin, welcome to Camp Cumberland!”
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“You just laugh to keep from crying,” Ring said.

Ring is a former lobbyist and Senate Judiciary Committee counsel. Beginning in 2014, he spent 15 and a half months in the Federal Prison Camp in Cumberland, Md., for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Now, he’s one of the most recognizable voices in the push for sentencing reform legislation — once the political darling of a divided Senate and now an apparent victim of the rapidly shrinking 2016 congressional calendar.

In his role as vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Ring advocates against the automatic minimum sentences that Congress sets for certain crimes.

Like many critics of mandatory minimums, he argues that they take away needed autonomy from judges who might otherwise use their discretion in matching the sentence to the crime. The result of such laws, critics say, is overly harsh sentences for low-level offenders who are unlikely to reoffend. 

With the November election looming — and all the incendiary rhetoric that has colored this year’s contest — FAMM is happy to wait until 2017 for wholesale reforms, Ring says. The group had formerly supported a bipartisan effort from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but now he fears being forced to fight back a myriad of tough-on-crime amendments put forward by jumpy lawmakers if the bill were to reach the floor.

“We think the window is, if not closed, close to closing,” Ring said last week. “But in our view, this isn’t the best time to be passing criminal justice reform anyway. In a presidential election year, you’re beating back really bad political ideas. The worst mandatory minimums are passed during election years because they are seen as politically valuable.”

The issue has drawn widespread attention, part of a spotlight on the criminal justice system from policymakers, advocates and academics from both sides of the aisle concerned about America’s ballooning prison population.

The U.S. has the highest incarcerated population of any country in the world. In 2013, 2.2 million people were under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons with a sentence longer than one year, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

The number of federal prisoners has grown dramatically, from 24,000 in 1980 to around 214,000 today, according the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

That was when Congress passed a slate of mandatory minimum laws, FAMM points out.

But supporters of those laws — most recently championed by Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senator: Supreme Court abortion cases were 'wrongly decided as a constitutional matter' Senate confirms controversial 9th Circuit pick without blue slips Cotton: US could win war with Iran in 'two strikes' MORE (R-Ark.) — argue that the rise of stiff mandatory minimums has resulted in a steep drop in violent crime.

Slimming down required sentences, they say, would release violent criminals onto the streets without doing anything to solve the problem of America’s over-packed prisons. The laws only affect the federal court system, and just 12 percent of the prison population is in federal prison, critics argue.

Some changes have been made. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which brought the penalties for selling crack and powder cocaine in line — in part the result of lobbying that argued the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger federal crime penalties relative to powder cocaine, previously set at a 100-to-1 weight ratio, disproportionately impacted African-Americans.

On the state level, the tide seems to be largely moving in the direction of reform. Between 2009 and 2013, 40 states took some action to ease their drug laws, according to the Pew Research Center. Maryland this year repealed most of its mandatory minimum laws altogether.

But reform advocates like Ring say far more needs to be done, including making some of the provisions of the 2010 law retroactive.

The intensely human fight has largely become — or always was — one of competing anecdotes.

Criminal justice reform for decades has been haunted by the specter of a man named Willie Horton, who violently raped a woman while he was out on a weekend pass allowed under a state furlough program.

Former President George H.W. Bush famously paid for an ad eviscerating general election opponent and then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the program. The ad is widely credited with sinking Dukakis’s 1988 bid for the White House.

Some supporters of reform are quick to criticize lawmakers frozen on the issue as afraid of “being Willie Hortoned.”

Ring appears phlegmatic about the brandishing of anecdotes — his side of the argument is accused of the same tactic.

“FAMM’s thing is if you want to legislate by anecdote, well, wow, do we have anecdotes for you,” Ring said.

Although he was not subject to a mandatory minimum himself, Ring says, he saw guys who were.

“I realized that these are not master criminals who are motivated to commit crimes by cost-benefit analysis or could be deterred by stiffer penalties necessarily. I see just people who make bad decisions,” he said.

“The idea that they are all evil geniuses who commit crimes because they’ve calculated that it’s in their interest is just maddening.”

Earlier this year, legislation championed by Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Trump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate MORE (R-Texas) seemed to gain some critical momentum. The bill, which had support from Koch Industries, the American Civil Liberties Union and the White House, would reduce mandatory minimums, grant judges wider discretion in sentencing and apply reductions retroactively to include convicted felons.

There was speculation that the measure might be one of the few significant pieces of new legislation Congress would be able to successfully pass in 2016. But pushback from Cotton, Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump Chris Wallace: AG Barr 'clearly is protecting' Trump Appeals court rules Trump end of DACA was unlawful MORE (Ala.) and a handful of other GOP hard-liners appeared to derail the bill’s chances.

“I don’t believe we should allow thousands of violent felons to be released early from prison, nor do I believe we should reduce sentences for violent offenders in the future,” Cotton told The New York Times.

But even after Senate Judiciary leaders brokered a deal watering down some of the provisions of the bill to appease GOP outliers like Cotton, the bill hasn’t seen the floor.

Before he ever considered he might end up in prison himself, in the late 1990s, Ring helped write some of the very laws he is now trying to tear down.

“I wrote one of the worst mandatory minimum laws on the books today,” Ring said, referring to a 1998 law from then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) stiffening penalties for methamphetamine. The legislation was a tough-on-crime response to rising meth usage, he says — a way to fight back against “the hillbilly crack” — and was written based on the weight triggers for crack cocaine, since lowered by the Fair Sentencing Act.

“At the time, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know,” he said. “ ‘Will this deter other users?’ ‘Will this reduce crime?’ I didn’t even think to ask those questions. I was just doing what I thought was the most politically smart thing.”

By the time he walked through the doors of the prison, Ring says, he had already stripped down his traditional conservative ideology to its scaffolding. A former Catholic, he also lost his faith.

“There was no light bulb or anything,” he says, but the months spent unemployed, living separated from his wife in the basement of his home while he fought his way through the lengthy appeals process led to a profound shift in perspective.

“It’s personal because I see the waste. I know something about it now. It seems like a useful thing to do to talk about that,” Ring said.

“I think it’s easier to punish the other,” he added. “And prisoners are the great other.”