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Today, the second in a series of stories about efforts to rethink who needs to be incarcerated and for how long. Right now there are more than 200,000 people in federal prisons. About half of them are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. The financial cost of locking up so many people are enormous - nearly $7 billion a year by one estimate. But it's harder to measure the human cost. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story of a woman who's just left prison after 17 years.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: When she went to prison on drug charges, Stephanie George was 26 years old, a mom to three young kids. During all those years behind bars, her grandparents died, her father died. The worst came just months before her release.
STEPHANIE GEORGE: I lost my baby son.
JOHNSON: Nineteen-year-old Will, shot dead on a Pensacola Street.
GEORGE: I feel bad because I'm not coming home to all of them. He was 4 when I left, but I miss him.
JOHNSON: Stephanie's one of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders sentenced under tough laws. Police found a half a kilo of cocaine and more than $10,000 in her attic. With two small-time prior drug offenses, that meant life. Congress designed those mandatory minimum sentences for kingpins. But over the past 20 years, they punished thousands of low-level couriers and girlfriends, like Stephanie. Judge Roger Vinson sentenced her on May 5, 1997. He reads from the court transcript.
ROGER VINSON: Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing, your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing. So certainly in my judgment, it does not warrant a life sentence.
JOHNSON: Vinson is no softy. He's got a framed photo of President Ronald Reagan on his wall. And he thinks Stephanie George was guilty. But the mandatory sentence didn't feel fair to Judge Vinson.
VINSON: I remember sentencing Stephanie George. She was a codefendant in that case, but I remember hers distinctly. I remember a lot of sentencings from 25 or 30 years ago. They stay in your mind. You're dealing with lives. Sorry.
JOHNSON: The judge says his hands were tied in 1997. The president of the United States is the only person who can untie them. Last December, in this case, President Obama did just that. He commuted Stephanie's sentence and paved the way for her release a few months later. Stephanie walked straight into the arms of the person who refused to give up on her, then and now.
WENDY EVIL: My name is Wendy Evil, and I'm Stephanie's older sister. Life sentence was not what I was going to accept. I would call lawyers, and then I would ask them, well, what does this sentence mean? And all of them would tell me the same thing - she will be there until she dies. And I said no.
JOHNSON: Wendy raised her sister's three children alongside her own. The sisters are two years apart, once so inseparable people thought they were twins.
EVIL: A part of me was missing when she left, just like somebody had died.
JOHNSON: The years Stephanie spent in prison took a toll on everyone who loves her. Wendy says her kids and her husband suffered because of her sister's sentence. Wendy's marriage ended in divorce.
EVIL: I may not have been incarcerated, literally locked up, but I was locked up in certain areas of my life.
JOHNSON: Imprisoned by her own emotions, angry at the system that took away her sister.
EVIL: I wouldn't even enjoy Christmas. I wouldn't enjoy Thanksgiving. I wouldn't even eat that day because she wasn't here.
JOHNSON: But she always cooked on those holidays for the rest of the family. The children got plenty of love from Wendy and their grandmother, and Stephanie called from prison. But when she came home 17 years later, nothing was the same, Wendy says.
EVIL: This is not the person you knew 17 years ago. Now you've got to learn to know this person. You know, you don't know what kind of mindset she has now. You don't know how it affected her. And it goes both ways, you know, with me and with her.
JOHNSON: Sitting in folding chairs in the driveway of Wendy's home in the Florida Panhandle, the sisters finish each other's sentences. To survive those 17 years in prison, Stephanie says she did a lot of work on herself.
GEORGE: I went to school. I took classes. I did whatever it took to run my mind from the time I woke up to the time I had to go to sleep. And that's how I made it every day.
JOHNSON: She also worked at the prison call center, developing skills she's trying to use on the outside to find a job. Stephanie's open about the daily challenges she faces. One of them is trust.
GEORGE: I'm afraid to even ride with people. I'm afraid for anybody to take me somewhere. I guess I can never make the mistake that I made before because I'm not going to allow anybody in my space to do that.
JOHNSON: Stephanie says she paid a high price for trusting her ex-boyfriend, the father of one of her children. Standing in her spotless, frilly bedroom in Pensacola, Stephanie's trying to set up a DVD player with help from her kids.
GEORGE: What do I need - the yellow and the red cord?
JOHNSON: Her son Courtney is 27. He sees his mother fumble with the wires and breaks into a grin. Stephanie's daughter Kendra, now 23, watches her mom wrestle with technology that's been out of date for years. Those children were 8 and 5 when Stephanie was sentenced. The death of their little brother, Will, is still fresh in all their minds. Courtney wears his late brother's red Adidas shoes to remember him. It's hard enough to lose a child, but Stephanie says to lose one you barely know just as your freedom is finally in reach hurts to her core.
GEORGE: It's just still a touchy subject for everybody. I'm OK to discuss it if they need to discuss it with me, but I don't want them to see me in so much distress, to think that I can't keep myself together, and it hurts.
JOHNSON: At least now, Stephanie says, she can wrap her arms around her two kids whenever she wants. That's something new after 17 years away. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
CORNISH: Senior producer Marisa Penaloza co-reported this story.
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