Mixed Reactions on Early Release of Crack Offenders

Earlier this month, due to new sentencing guidelines, hundreds of inmates with federal crack cocaine charges became eligible for early release. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, discusses the new guidelines and questions about the effect on communities.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to shift gears now to bring you an update on a story we've been following about the changes in sentencing laws. Hundreds of people in prison on federal crack cocaine charges became eligible for early release earlier this month. Some are now free. We've heard from Natasha Marshall, a California mother released from prison after three years were shaved off her sentence for a crack cocaine violation. We spoke with Wade Ikard. He's a North Carolina minister who is against early release, and he blames crack for the devastation in his community.

We wanted to bring you another perspective - that of Julie Stewart. She's president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. It's another one of our Behind Closed Doors conversations about how these - whole conversation about how the drug laws effect families and communities. And she's here with us in the studio. Welcome. Thanks so much for stopping in again.

Ms. JULIE STEWART (President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums): I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Given the scope of what's happened since the new regulations came in - went into effect, how many people are actually affected by this? I mean, this has been such an attention-getting story for people who follow these things. But how many people are affected by it?

Ms. STEWART: Well, I guess you could say on the one hand, not very many. On the other hand, those who are affected are very happy about it. I got statistics for this program, actually, on Friday. And since March 3rd, when this became effective, so far almost 2,300 people have been re-sentenced. And of those 2,300, just over a thousand have actually been released early.

MARTIN: Now, these are all federal offenders. Isn't it true that most people who've been sentenced for crack cocaine violations are in state prisons - through the state system, isn't that correct? So how many people is that?

Ms. STEWART: Well, there are hundreds of thousands of people in state prison, rather unfortunately. And that's where the bulk of the prisoners go and not - the federal prison system only has 200,000 people in it. I mean, that's a lot, but nation-wide, we have over two million people in prisons. So most of the people in prison in this country are in the state system.

MARTIN: Are you hearing from families who believe these changes, these sentencing changes, may affect them? And are you having to tell them that actually they don't?

Ms. STEWART: We did a lot of preplanning in helping people understand who would be able to apply and who wouldn't. And we encouraged them to talk to their lawyers. So I think people had a pretty good idea when March 3rd rolled around who would and wouldn't be able to benefit from this. But we've heard from a good number of people who are just thanking us repeatedly for helping make this change happen.

And it's funny because last spring, when we were talking about this modest change, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission called it, to the crack cocaine guidelines, there was a lot of discussion about, you know, should we even support it? Is it big enough? And of course, we felt like we had to pragmatic and take what we could get. And so, we did support it. And now it seems like it's, you know, it's the best thing since sliced bread.

Well, you know, it is still a modest change. It did not change the mandatory minimum sentences. It only changed the sentencing guidelines. It's a bit complicated, but people who are sitting on five and ten-year mandatory sentences do not benefit from this.

MARTIN: Talk to me. Does it, well, before we get to your point of view on this, I wanted to hear - I wanted to play you something that we heard from Wade Ikard. He is a minister in South Statesville, North Carolina. He heads a program called Weed and Seed. I'm sure you know about it. It's an anti-drug program sponsored by the Department of Justice. He was responding to an earlier conversation that we had with Natasha Marshall, who'd been released three years early. He actually testified against changing the sentencing guidelines. Here's what he had to say.

Reverend WADE IKARD (Minister, and Head, Weed and Seed): The community has lost - a lot of its businesses have gone. The crime rate has just skyrocketed. The gangs are so territorial now that we have constantly murders and robberies. The dropouts in school now, it has just increased tremendously, because one again, crack being the poor man's drug, as they say it is, it's a quick way to make money. So now, why work?

MARTIN: So clearly, everybody doesn't think it's the best thing since sliced bread. There are those who think that this is terrible and that this is the kind of thing that sends the wrong message, that people are not going to be held accountable fully for the devastation that they have caused to their communities. What do you say to that?

Ms. STEWART: Well, I think it is a little bit of a red herring. This is a very modest change. It effects, as I say, maybe - the estimated 1,600 people would be released, you know, within the first year, up to 2,600 people across the country. So it's not going to be 19,500 people coming back into one community at one time.

I think that crack cocaine was very devastating in the '80s to a lot of communities. Some of those communities have not fully recovered from that, but I would be loathed to say that crack defendants or crack offenders are the reason that communities now are not recovering. I think that there's a lot of very complicated socio-economic reasons that communities are not recovering.

MARTIN: Part of the reason that you got involved in this issue, you said that you had a family member who was incarcerated on a drug related offense, who's caught up in the whole mandatory minimum thing. Is it personally painful for you to hear the resistance that some people have, to what is to you a very common sense approach towards equalizing what a lot of people have seen as a kind of gross inequality and just of really, sort of, an excessive punishment for crimes that - the people who are effected by this are non-violent offenders, they're first time offenders and so forth? Is that - does that bother you?

Ms. STEWART: I think after almost 17 or 18 years of doing this, I've finally got used to the fact that not everyone agrees with me. But I think that people also need to look beyond their immediate reaction when they hear the word "drugs," "crack," "crime" and be a little more thoughtful about how we can increase public safety efficiently, and smartly, and responsibly. And certainly incarcerating for 10, or 15, or 20 years people who have admittedly broken the law, and we have no problem with them being punished, but let the punishment fit the crime.

I think it's a basic - a fundamental tenant that Americans actually believe that the punishment should fit the crime and the individual's role in the crime. And most of the mandatory sentences we have today simply don't allow judges to do that.

MARTIN: I'd like to hear more about that. Why do you think the punishment doesn't fit the crime? Why do you think that the system is so out of whack?

Ms. STEWART: Well, what we hear all the time from judges is that they are forced to give these sentences. My hands are tied. I don't want to do this, but the law requires me to. How we got there, I think is a matter of going all the way back to Len Bias' death in the 1980's and, you know, Congress responded by saying, well, we'll fix this problem. We'll create this stiff mandatory sentences, and that will deter people getting involved in drug crime. Deterrence is a wonderful theory, but it's not the most realistic one. It may deter a small percentage of people, but as the minister said, in fact, drugs are a lucrative business to be in.

And as long as there's a black - a market for it, there will be a supply, so I think that we just have to be much more creative about how we have to deal with this problem.

MARTIN: Do you mind telling us a little more about your brother, who is the reason you got in this area to begin with, and how's he doing now?

Ms. STEWART: Now he's doing great, but he was 35 years old. He was growing marijuana with two other men in a garage in Spokane, Washington. They were all arrested. Actually, the two men who were living in the house showed the garage full of marijuana plants to a neighbor, and the neighbor turned them in. They, in turn, turned my brother in, and so he ended up going to prison for five years for growing marijuana.

There's no parole in the federal prison system, so when we talk about these numbers, they are actually hard numbers - five years. He got out in 1995. He's been clean for, you know, so many years, and now is married, and has a wife and two children, and lives in Virginia. But he is in the computer industry, and there are a lot of jobs he can't do.

I mean, when he first got out of prison, he wanted to become a realtor. He took all the exams in Virginia, passed the real estate exams, but they wouldn't license him. He petitioned the real estate board in Richmond, Virginia, and they said, no, you're a felon.

So, there are so many barriers to reentry, and that's especially sad since we have something like 650,000 people coming out every year. We are going to need to figure out ways to allow them to reenter society.

MARTIN: What do you say, though, to those, and we only have a minute or so left, and I understand it's a complicated question, that there really is no such thing as a victimless crime? That these drugs, that they seem sort of harmless, and growing dope in his garage and that's fine, and it sounds like, you know, a movie. But you know, if you look at these communities who have absolutely been devastated by drugs, and people say there's no such thing. What do you say?

Ms. STEWART: I think that the expression, "victimless crime," means that someone is a willing buyer of the drug. I don't think that drugs, including alcohol, and tobacco, and coffee and caffeine, you know, are good for any of us. And so, I think that we should all try to live as cleanly as we can. But I do think there's a big difference between two consenting adults engaged in an activity, then there is, you know, someone literally jumping out of the bushes and attacking someone.

MARTIN: Do you think the conversations that we are having around this issue have changed over the time that you've been working in this field? Do you see - I guess, more willingness to have conversations like this, over time?

Ms. STEWART: I do think so.

MARTIN: Or not?

Ms. STEWART: I do think so. Congress has been my main focus for the last 17 years, and I think that everything ebbs and flows. Crime ebbs and flows. The interest in drugs ebbs and flows. This too will pass, but it's just a matter of time, and I think that the conversation is getting us close.

MARTIN: All right, Julie Stewart is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She was kind enough to join me here in our studio in Washington. Julie Stewart, thanks again.

Ms. STEWART: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page 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.