Crack Sentencing Changes Hit Home for Calif. Woman

In December 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission modified guidelines for those convicted of crack related drug offenses, in contrast with powder cocaine offenses. The change could mean the early release of up to 20,000 inmates. Natasha Marshall, newly released from prison under the altered guidelines, shares her story.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

For years, civil-rights activists and the families of some drug offenders have complained that sentences for dealing crack cocaine were all out of proportion to those for selling or handling powder, a discrepancy that was based on the later-discredited belief that crack was somehow more addictive.

Advocates came to believe the discrepancy was also racist, as crack became associated with blacks and powder with whites. In December, the U.S. Sentencing Commission finally agreed and changed the guidelines to lower the sentences for crack cocaine.

That meant that thousands of offenders convicted on crack-related offenses would be released early. So we wanted to know what that means, both for the ex-offenders and for those who will receive them back into their homes in neighborhoods.

We suspect that that scenario evokes more complicated feelings than some are willing to admit, a behind-closed-doors conversation. So we are going to have more than one. Later in the week, we hope to hear from folks who oppose the early release of these offenders. But first, we are going to talk now with Natasha Marshall. She was serving a 15-year sentence for crack cocaine charges before her release last week, three years early, and she joins us from Fresno, California. Thank you so much for speaking with you.

Ms. NATASHA MARSHALL (Released Early from Prison): You're welcome.

MARTIN: I'm sure it's a complicated story, but if you could just tell us briefly why you were locked up?

Ms. MARSHALL: The police came into the house. We were arrested in August of 1996.

MARTIN: We being you and your husband?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes - at that time, yes. And we were charged with conspiracy to distribute and manufacture crack cocaine and with aiding and abetting.

MARTIN: Did you go to trial?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, I did. I was like I'm going to trial because I haven't - you know, I'm innocent. I didn't do what they charged me with.

MARTIN: And you were convicted.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: Along with your former husband.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, and…

MARTIN: But he was, in fact, involved with crack cocaine. Is that accurate?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes.

MARTIN: So I'm having trouble understanding - forgive me, why you didn't understand that what he was doing was illegal. You thought that he was - what was he doing? Was he manufacturing crack? Was he cooking crack? Was he selling crack?

Ms. MARSHALL: Well, all of the above, but I didn't know all of that, you know, at the time. And, I mean, really, I know it sounds weird, you know, but I was just naive. I had no idea that this was a crime, and I certainly had no idea that this would, you know, put me away for 15 and a half years.

MARTIN: Do you have children?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, four children, and at the time, the oldest was 17, and my youngest was nine.

MARTIN: So you were incarcerated for 11 years.

Ms. MARSHALL: Mm-hmm. Four months shy of 11 years. I was convicted on July 9th, 1997.

MARTIN: What happened to your children during the time you were incarcerated?

Ms. MARSHALL: Well, they started out with my dad, and then they ended up split up. Two were with my sister-in-law, and then two were with some cousins. And the older ones, they moved out on their own, and then that just left the two younger ones. And they went from my in-laws to some cousins. But they got, you know, kind of moved around.

MARTIN: So they - all this time that you were incarcerated, your children were all split up. Essentially, your family was broken apart.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, definitely.

MARTIN: How angry are you at your husband - your former husband?

Ms. MARSHALL: Now, not anywhere near as angry as I was. And, actually, I have very little anger now.

MARTIN: When did you start to hear that you might be able to come home early?

Ms. MARSHALL: December 11th is when they actually voted to make it retroactive. So I would say like about six months prior to that, I had started noticing that there was a lot of things going on. But they were making sure that they were letting us know this is going to happen for sure, but it may not be retroactive. But I still was following it.

MARTIN: Is it your view that the reason you shouldn't be - and I understand your point, that you feel you were an innocent party, okay, and we have to just agree that the jury disagreed with you.

So the question I have for you is your view that your sentence was excessive, was it because you think that just the amounts that they were talking about shouldn't warrant 15 years, or was it that because if there's no violence involved, then you shouldn't be in jail that long? Or that people who are just bystanders like you - because you're not the only person to be in this situation.

There are a lot of situations with spouses or partners or girlfriends, you know, were transporting drugs for someone or were asked to, you know, put drugs in their underwear and their luggage or got caught that way. What's your take on that?

Ms. MARSHALL: My take is I felt that I shouldn't have been in simply because I wasn't, you know, involved. I didn't realize that there was such a thing as guilt by association. Over the years, I realized that the jury was like, well, this is the wife, you know, she had to know what was going on. She was doing it, you know. I was in the picture, but I wasn't in the picture. But because I was the wife, everything that they proved on him just spilled over on me, and it's like they couldn't, you know, separate the two anymore.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Natasha Marshall. She was serving a 15-year sentence on crack cocaine charges. She was released three years early, just last week.

So tell me what it was like when you found out that there might be a chance that you would come home early and this was real. What was that like?

Ms. MARSHALL: I was like this - it was just - I was ecstatic. I was just overjoyed. I was like oh, my God, now this nightmare is finally going to an end sooner than what they said. My heart kind of skipped a beat, and I was like wow, this is it. It's really happening.

MARTIN: And so when did you actually get out, and what was that like?

Ms. MARSHALL: I was released March 3rd, but once they called me to R&D…

MARTIN: What's that?

Ms. MARSHALL: Receiving and delivery - once they called me to R&D and counted the money out that I had left on my books and closed out everything and actually said you're free to go, that's when it really, really hit me. And I knew when I walked out the front door that I wouldn't be going back.

MARTIN: Was there anybody to meet you?

Ms. MARSHALL: My friend was there. And I didn't know that all my daughters and my grandson were coming to meet me.

MARTIN: Had you been able to see them during the period that you had been locked up?

Ms. MARSHALL: In the beginning, no. His family wouldn't bring them to see me. They were upset with me because I wasn't speaking to him because I was upset because I was in prison behind on something he did.

MARTIN: How long was it before you were able to see them again?

Ms. MARSHALL: I had been locked up for over three years before I got a chance to see them.

MARTIN: What was that like?

Ms. MARSHALL: Wow, that was really something. We had everybody in the visiting room crying, even the officers, because I hadn't saw them. And I used to pray every night, you know, please, I want to see my children. I couldn't talk to them on the phone, and I would write them letters, and then I found out later that they weren't getting them. It was just horrible. It was a horrible experience, but I made it through, and they're all doing really good.

MARTIN: So your oldest is 28. Your youngest is 18 now. You missed a lot of their growing up.

Ms. MARSHALL: The youngest is 21.

MARTIN: Twenty-one.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yeah, I missed a lot. When my first and only grandchild was born, I called her, and I just - I called her to, you know, congratulate her and just busted out crying. And here she is consoling me, momma don't cry. It was just hard. I mean, I missed so much. Both my parents passed away while I was, you know, locked up, and I couldn't go to their funerals.

MARTIN: I understand that your former husband was released also.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes. He was released the same day.

MARTIN: The same day? How do you feel about that?

Ms. MARSHALL: It's okay. I wouldn't want - after what I've been through, I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy, if I had a worst enemy.

MARTIN: What's the worst part about prison?

Ms. MARSHALL: For me, it was being away from my children, you know, not being there when they needed me. My oldest daughter had wrote a letter to judge, you know, saying please, you know, do something. You know, all of them did at different points, let my mom out of prison. You know, we need her.

MARTIN: Do you understand why some people are very upset about this, about -not you as an individual, but the whole idea that you have what could be - I mean, the initial group of folks being set free, there are about 1,600 people who were incarcerated who are eligible for early release because of the change in the sentencing guidelines. But that's maybe, you know 20,000 people overall in the federal system who may be eligible for early release.

And, you know, everybody's not on board with this. Do you understand why?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, I do. I know there - they seem to feel that - they have all characterized as, you know, violent criminals. With us being released early, we're going to come back out into the community and just, you know, raise the crime rate. And that's not true.

MARTIN: How do you know that's not true?

Ms. MARSHALL: Well, for one, one of the criterias for being released was that you are not a threat or a danger to the community. And if they deemed you to be, then you're not going to be released early.

MARTIN: One of the things I think that is bothering some people is that I know it's been discredited, the idea that, you know, crack and powder are so different.

I mean, initially, people thought they were, and they associated crack with all kind of, you know, crazy behavior. Chemically, they're really no different, but that one is a drug of choice - had become a drug of choice or it was associated with the black community, and one was associated with the white community. And on that basis, they said, you know what. It's racist.

But other people say look, black communities tend to be more devastated by drugs, by the drug trade. You know, that's where the crime takes place. You've got people who are addicted, who are stealing from their family members, who are engaging in all kinds of crazy behavior and really destroying the communities. And on that basis, they say you know what? We don't need these people back who participated in something so destructive. What do you say to that?

Ms. MARSHALL: You know, I can look at both sides of it, you know. I mean, I wouldn't want anyone, you know, who I felt was going to destroy the community, you know, coming back in. I guess it's kind of like someone who's been convicted of a sex crime, molesting children or raping or something.

You don't want these people back into your community, you know, but still, you know, people can change. And people deserve, you know, a second chance. If they need to be monitored, then so be it. I mean, and pretty much, with us being on supervised release, that's what's being done to us. We're being monitored.

MARTIN: But do you understand that even somebody like you, who - I take your point, non-violent, no record of violence, no previous record, right? As I understand it, you have no previous charges.

Ms. MARSHALL: No previous charges.

MARTIN: But from the standpoint of some folks, you are at least an enabler. I mean, if your husband is doing something wrong, then people say you are part of what is poison in the community. What do you say to that?

Ms. MARSHALL: I could see where other people may consider me as an enabler, but I never considered myself an enabler. I never - I had no idea of what was going on and the ramifications of what was going on, how it was going on.

MARTIN: What about your husband? What if there are some who would say, you know what? You might be fine, Natasha, but we don't really need your ex-husband around here because, you know, whatever you were doing or not doing, he was spreading the poison, and this poison kills people. And we don't need that. What would you say to that?

We don't - even if, you know, he's going to get out eventually, but you know what? Let him do his time for the damage that he caused the community, that some people say there's no such thing as a victimless crime when it comes to drugs. I know there's a difference of opinion about that. For those who say that, what do you say?

Ms. MARSHALL: Mm-hmm. I would agree, but I'd still say that, you know, a person deserves a second chance. You know, maybe they can change.

MARTIN: Do you feel like you gained three years of your life?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes and no. I always felt like I wasn't going to do the time, you know, and I really thought I would've been out much sooner than this. But I just had no idea how the system was set up.

MARTIN: So what's the best thing about being out?

Ms. MARSHALL: I don't have to stand up and be counted. I don't have to be told when to go to bed, when to get up. I can move at my own free will.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

Ms. MARSHALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Natasha Marshall recently received early release from a 15-year sentence from a conviction on drug charges. She joined us from KVPR in Fresno, California. Natasha Marshall, thank you so much.

Ms. MARSHALL: You're welcome, and thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.