True or False: U.S. Prisons Are Overflowing With People Who Don’t Belong There

If you believe a penal system operating at 140 percent capacity is a problem, here’s a little secret about how it got that way.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has vowed to take up the mantle of prison sentence reform in 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Jan 30, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

When Debi Campbell got busted serving as a middleman in a California-to-Texas meth pipeline, she knew she’d do time in prison. What she didn’t realize is that she’d spend nearly two decades there—with virtually no hope for early release.

“I wasn’t a kingpin. I was a nobody,” Campbell tells TakePart. “I needed money to get my kids out of foster care.”

Police caught the woman in charge of the Texas end of the operation selling the California product Campbell helped ship in the mail. Once arrested, the Texan agreed to work with the government to set up Campbell—in exchange for immunity from any prison time. That’s how Campbell came to face conspiracy drug charges.

Federal agents eventually charged Campbell with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute ten kilograms of meth—a number that Campbell says was completely made up by her co-conspirator.

“She was facing life in prison,” says Campbell. “She told them whatever they wanted to hear.”

With no evidence of that volume of drugs other than the snitch’s testimony, the ten kilograms of meth Debi was charged with trafficking happened to be just enough to trigger an automatic “mandatory minimum” 235-month sentence—even though she was a first-time offender.

“When the bathtub is overflowing, you don’t just turn off the faucet. You need to empty the drain too.”

Because Campbell disputed her co-conspirator’s claims about the volume of meth she helped move, the judge tacked on an additional four years of prison time for “obstruction of justice.”

In other words, Campbell received four years in prison for disputing the word of a co-conspirator who had zero incentive to tell the truth and got off virtually scot-free.

“Debi Campbell’s almost 20-year mandatory sentence was overkill, but that’s what happens every day in courtrooms and prisons cells across America, because of the inflexibility of mandatory minimum sentencing laws,” Monica Pratt Raffanel, communications director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells TakePart.

Indeed, mandatory minimum cases like Campbell’s—where prison sentences are set in stone, often harshly, with no judicial discretion—are all too common in America, particularly when it comes to drug crimes.

The number of mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal code has jumped from 98 in 1991 to 195 in 2011. Fifty-five percent of inmates in federal prisons are serving sentences with a mandatory penalty of five years or more. That’s up from 43.6 percent in 1990. According to Jasmine Tyler, Deputy Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, more than two-thirds of these individuals are serving time for drug crimes. Half of the nearly 220,000 federal prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses.

“Drug abuse is bad,” says the Drug Policy Alliance’s Tyler, “but the drug war is far worse. The federal prison system is currently operating at 140 percent capacity. Even if we were able to stop that overcrowding, we would still have a huge problem. Capacity is not a goal to be met when it comes to incarceration.”

There is hope. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy recently announced his intention to push for an end to federal mandatory minimum sentences.

“Our reliance at the state and federal level on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake,” Leahy told a group of Georgetown Law students in early January. “I’m not convinced it has lowered crime. I know that we have imprisoned people who should not be there, and we have wasted money better spent on other things.”

The backing of a powerful politician like Leahy, who is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, represents a major step forward in the effort to normalize an outlandishly punitive drug sentencing policy. That said, even if Leahy were successful in removing federal mandatory minimum sentences, the problem of our overflowing prison system would probably not go away.

The United States is one of the few countries on Earth that does not guarantee retroactive ameliorative relief in sentencing—meaning that those convicted of a crime are not automatically given relief if the punishment for that crime is revised (or eliminated entirely) after their sentencing.

For instance, 2010’s Fair Sentencing Act significantly lowered the federal mandatory punishments for crack cocaine possession. However, it failed to provide retroactive relief for the thousands upon thousands of individuals already harshly sentenced under the older statutes.

“When the bathtub is overflowing, you don’t just turn off the faucet,” says Tyler. “You need to empty the drain too.”

Tyler remains hopeful that today’s Debi Campbells—first-time, low-level drug offenders serving kingpin prison sentences—will one day be given leniency from the excesses of the ’80s-era anti-drug fervor. She cites the public support of Republican senator Rand Paul for mandatory minimum reform as proof that this can become a bipartisan issue.

Campbell too is hopeful. Since her release in 2010, she has become an advocate for sentencing reform, and moved to the Washington, D.C. area to try to lobby the political establishment. Her nearly two decades in prison, however, have taught her that change does not come quickly in the American criminal justice system.

“When I was sentenced, my attorney told me ‘Don’t worry, you’ll serve two years. There’s no way these laws will stay on the books,’ ” she says. “Well, 20 years later they’re still there.”

Is there a better way than locking people up to address drug abuse in America? Talk it through in COMMENTS.