Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Mandatory Minimums

By Ben Fulton

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  It is a waste of society's time and money to severely punish non-violent, first-time offenders caught with controlled substances.

That was the opening salvo one week ago at the East Millcreek Library as a dozen people sat scattered throughout a small meeting room. The speaker was Burt Stringfellow, father to a 28-year-old son in his third year of a 15-year sentence for the distribution of LSD.

"Even though our numbers are small here tonight, this is just a beginning," he said.

Yes, drug dealers should be punished. But the punishment must fit the crime, and judges should retain the original power they had to deliver a sentence appropriate to the case.

Matters used to be different. But in 1986, zenith in the nation's anti-drug fever, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This is the law that introduced mandatory minimum drug sentences, which delivered five-, 10- and even 20-year prison terms to drug dealers and their conspirators — no matter what the circumstances of their case. The law also tied the hands of federal judges, who had no choice but to mete out pre-determined prison sentences: The more drugs you were caught with, the longer your sentence.

The nation's prisons quickly filled to capacity with non-violent, first-time offenders who received harsher sentences than people convicted of violent crimes. To this day, because of mandatory minimums, a first-time offender charged with the possession of 100 grams of methamphetamine could spend more time in prison without parole (10 years) than a person receiving any of the average sentences for assault (3.2 years), manslaughter (3.6 years), rape (5.8 years), kidnapping (4.2 years), or even attempted murder (6.5 years).

Justin and Burt Stringfellow (left) want Utah to re-think mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders.
The law wasn't popular with federal judges. Families who found their loved ones serving more time than murderers and rapists were shocked. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) formed six years ago in Washington D.C. to change the law. Now, the recently formed Salt Lake City FAMM Chapter is trying to change the law by influencing elected officials and public opinion at home.

"We know that perhaps 80 percent of citizens are against us," Stringfellow said. "But when I saw the statistics for prison growth among first-time drug offenders I thought it was insane to take so much time out of the lives of people who made just one mistake."

Those attending the formation meeting for the Salt Lake City FAMM Chapter had similar stories of a friend or family member serving time, but more time was spent on ideas than tears. There to help was FAMM's national field director, Andrea Strong, who flew in from Kentucky to provide advice and support.

Strong's brother received a life sentence for his involvement in a marijuana conspiracy, the same year boxer Mike Tyson got a slap on the wrist for rape. It was by contrasting her brother's sentence with Tyson's that she got the issue of mandatory minimums on CBS national news. Of course, it is politicians who hold the key to change.

"Tell [elected officials] that your loved one is guilty and deserves to be punished, but that the punishment is way beyond the crime," she told attendees. "If your Congressman says he thinks mandatory minimums are a good idea, ask him how you can change his mind."

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