Anyone familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system has likely heard the expression, “When a person gets sentenced to prison, the whole family serves the time.” Thanks to our nation’s harsh sentencing laws, lots of families are serving time.
The cost to the government of these “lock ’em up and throw away the key” policies, in terms of skyrocketing prison construction costs, is well documented. Less appreciated are the social, emotional and economic impacts these policies have on families.
I know them all too well.
In 1991, my younger brother was arrested, tried and convicted in federal court for his involvement in a conspiracy to sell marijuana. He introduced a marijuana buyer and a marijuana grower and was paid one time for making the connection. His codefendants continued buying and selling marijuana. When they were arrested, they turned in my brother, who was also held accountable for all the marijuana they sold.
My mother and I were devastated. We knew he was not a bad person, but rather someone who had made some bad choices for which he would have to pay. Do the crime and pay the time, we were raised to believe. But our grief turned to anger when my brother, a first-time marijuana offender, was ordered to serve the rest of his life in prison, thanks to a one-size-fits-all, federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.
I confess I did not know anything about how criminal sentencing laws worked. After my brother was sentenced, I reached out to a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). I soon learned that my family was one of thousands dealing with the negative consequences of criminal punishments dictated by politicians in Washington, D.C., rather than local courts.
I also learned that mandatory-minimum sentencing laws do not take into account whether someone is a small-time drug user or a major trafficker. The “minimum” sentences they establish are chosen out of thin air and reflect nothing but Congress’ sense of wha