Op-Ed: My Brother’s Five Years in Prison Gave Me a 20-Year Crusade

Learning about mandatory minimum sentencing laws the hard way drove Julie Stewart into a career in advocacy.

mandatory minimum sentences

Maricopa County inmates are padlocked by the ankle for chain gang duty in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The aim of this TakePart series is to show that wrong convictions are not restricted to innocent defendants who are falsely found guilty. Mandatory minimum sentencing policies are piling years of unwarranted penitentiary time on first-time, nonviolent offenders. Prosecutorial manipulation of jailhouse informers routinely hangs truth and justice upon the words of a single snitch. America’s broken justice system is cruel and unusual by the standards of the developed world. It needs to be fixed.


“Families against what?”

When I started Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991, I got that question a lot. Few people knew what mandatory minimums were. In fact, it seemed that the only people aware of them were the politicians who voted for them and the individuals who were sentenced to them. I set about to change that. For the past two decades, I have dedicated my life to educating as many people as I could about the stupidity and cruelty of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

The first person I educated was myself. I knew nothing about mandatory sentencing laws, prison or criminal justice issues until my brother was arrested for cultivating marijuana in 1990. He was pretty much treading water with his life when he and two friends decided to grow marijuana in a garage. One of the friends was an electrician; so he set up the grow lights, and they proceeded to fit as many small garden pots as possible into the garage space with marijuana seeds in each—365 in all.

When the marijuana plants were about six inches tall, one of the friends decided to show a neighbor what they were doing. The neighbor surveyed the garage full of marijuana seedlings and promptly called the police. My brother’s two friends were arrested and immediately turned in my brother. In exchange for their cooperation, they each received probation—even though one of them had been to prison in California for a drug offense.

My brother’s case is small potatoes in many ways; yet it illustrates much of what’s wrong with our sentencing policies. First and foremost: Why was my brother’s case prosecuted in the federal system? The offense took place in a garage in Washington State. He didn’t cross state lines; he didn’t sell drugs to a federal informant (he didn’t sell any!); he didn’t launder money; there was no logical reason for the federal government to pick up my brother’s petty marijuana growing attempt.

My brother decided he could not live with himself if he destroyed someone else’s life just to save his. I respected his decision, and I’m glad he made it even though it meant he had to spend five years in prison.

The only explanation that makes sense is that prosecutors knew he would do more time in federal prison than in state prison. This is commonly referred to as “jurisdiction shopping.” In the 21 years I’ve been running FAMM, I’ve seen it carried out repeatedly.  Small-fry drug offenders are routinely prosecuted in the federal system and end up serving many years in prison.

My brother’s case also illustrates the absurdity of basing sentences on drug weight.  When he was arrested, each marijuana plant weighed less than an ounce. Yet, mandatory minimum sentencing laws treat each plant as if it weighs one kilo (2.2 pounds), regardless of its actual size. So my brother was sentenced for growing 365 kilos (803 pounds) of marijuana! Based on the plant count and weight, my brother received a sentence of five years in federal prison without parole. 

The prosecutor told my brother there was only one way to avoid that sentence—snitch on someone else. At the time, I was horrified by the thought of my brother going to prison for five years. I’m not proud to admit that I begged him to consider informing on someone else. He considered it. He knew other people, longtime friends in some cases, who had been growing marijuana for years. But he also knew that if he turned them in, they would be subjected to the same madness he was going through, and their families would be left in shambles.

My brother decided he could not live with himself if he destroyed someone else’s life just to save his. I respected his decision, and I’m glad he made it even though it meant he had to spend five years in prison. But my initial reaction to the snitching-option makes me understand why people choose it, especially when facing mandatory sentences of ten or 20 years or life in prison. 

That’s when I really learned about mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Since 1986, federal drug offenses have carried mandatory sentences of five or ten years in prison, based primarily on the weight of the drug. Those penalties are doubled if the defendant had a prior conviction. The only way to avoid those stiff sentences is to cooperate with the government and give it information that it feels is valuable (mostly turning in another drug offender). If, and only if, the government thinks you’ve been helpful, it will grant a motion that allows the judge to give you a sentence lower than the mandatory minimum sentence. 

When my brother was sentenced, the federal judge looked at him and said, “I do not want to give you this sentence but my hands are tied by Congress.”  What the judge meant was that the mandatory drug sentencing laws Congress passed in 1986 forced him to give my brother a five-year sentence. Because my brother had not cooperated, the government did not file a motion that would have allowed the judge to sentence him to less than five years. In court, the judge railed against mandatory minimum sentences—and my eyes were opened.

Less than a year later, I started FAMM. During the past two decades, we have educated thousands of people about America’s sentencing laws. We have also tweaked those laws in Congress, at the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in State Houses, and at the Supreme Court—enough to impact the lives of at least 175,000 people facing or serving mandatory sentences. 

While I’m gratified by FAMM’s success and leadership role in pushing back against these stupid mandatory minimum sentences, I know there is so much more to be done. Elected officials at the state and federal level need to hear from all of us who believe that justice cannot be meted out by one-size-fits-all sentences.

You can tell members of the U.S. Senate and House Judiciary Committees that you want them to introduce legislation to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

I’m convinced the momentum has shifted in our favor, but we need to keep the pressure on to ensure that thousands more don’t learn about mandatory minimum sentences the hard way—like my brother and I did.

Aside from prison, what are some other ways to address America’s vast appetite for illegal drugs and prescription medications? Suggest your solutions in COMMENTS.

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