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Rethinking Life Behind Bars

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

“Courtney called out, ‘Mom, you promised you weren’t going to leave us no more,’ ” Ms. George recalled, her eyes glistening. “I still hear that voice to this day, and he’s a grown man.”

Stephanie George, serving a life sentence without parole in Louisiana for a minor drug infraction still recalls the heartbreaking pleas from her eldest of 3 sons, Courtney, then 8, in 1997.

Ms. George is one of a half a million people in the U.S. locked away in prison for non-violent drug crimes.   

When Ms. George was sentenced 15 years ago, her children were 5, 6 and 9. They have been raised by her sister, Wendy Evil, who says it was agonizing to take the children to see their mother in prison. They would fight over who gets to sit on their mother’s lap.

A lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine seized by police in Ms. George’s attic was sufficient evidence for Judge Vinson to be convinced of a crime severe enough for Ms. George to be separated from her children for the rest of her life. 

Judge Vinson, whose reputation is anything but libertarian, defends that a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record was what determined Ms. George’s sentence.

Ms. George and Judge Vinson had conflicting views about the cocaine filled lockbox stashed away in Ms. George’s home. Ms. George claimed the cocaine was hidden in the attic and she was not aware it was hidden in her house. She insisted her drug dealing boyfriend placed the cocaine in the lockbox and hid it in the attic. 

Originally, Ms. George and Judge Vinson did agree on the fairness of the sentence imposed by federal court because Ms. George was a known drug dealer and the cocaine was found in her house, even though her boyfriend was responsible for putting it there. The punishment for drug possession does not entail a life sentence.

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Feinstein Wary of Proposals to Reduce Prison Sentences

By John Gramlich, CQ Roll Call

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she is conflicted about legislation to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing laws, signaling that lawmakers in both parties are wary of the effort ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee markup in December.

Feinstein, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, said in an interview that she is “not comfortable” with legislation that would reduce criminal penalties for some offenders, even though Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has strongly urged the panel to act on the issue.

“We’ve been wrestling with it,” Feinstein said. “For me right now, it’s not an easy question.”

The Judiciary Committee is expected to meet after the Thanksgiving recess to mark up four bills related to the federal prison system, including two that would effectively reduce criminal sentences and two that would allow some prisoners to earn earlier releases if they participate in rehabilitation programs. All four bills are aimed at curbing the rapid growth in the number of federal inmates.

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Rep. Bobby Scott leads push to reduce mandatory federal sentences

By Peter Dujardin, pdujardin@dailypress.com

NEWPORT NEWS — A federal lawmaker from the Peninsula is helping to lead a bipartisan effort to reduce minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which he and other backers say will translate into fewer prisoners and large cost savings.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, the “Smarter Sentencing Act.” It was introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with a companion bill introduced in the Senate in July.

“Mandatory minimums have been studied for a long time,” Scott said in an interview Thursday. “And all these studies conclude that mandatory minimums fail to reduce crime, waste the taxpayers’ money, and often require the judges to impose sentences that violate common sense.”

The legislation would also increase the number of defendants eligible for a waiver that allows judges to sentence particular defendants below the minimums. That is, the bill would allow that “safety valve” to be available for people with more on their criminal records than is now the case.

Reducing the number of people jailed for drug crimes — and giving more sentencing discretion to judges — has become a bipartisan push in both houses of Congress.

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AG’s Memorandum on Mandatory Minimums and Recidivist Enhancements

By Christopher Zoukis

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Department of Justice either declining to charge or waiving more severe charges for those involved in certain nonviolent, low-level drug cases.  The rumors inside federal prison have run the gambit from the new policy being retroactive to it only affecting those with gun convictions, both of which are categorically incorrect.  In matters of law and policy, it is always best to learn the truth from official U.S. Government documents or directly from judicial opinions, not hearsay, summaries, or third party opinions.

As a service to the Prison Law Blog readers, enclosed below is the memorandum from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder concerning the new policy revisions which his office has put into play.  We implore you to review this memorandum as it clarifies the DOJ’s position on this matter and shows how federal prosecutors will be applying the new guidelines to applicable offenders.  By reading the memorandum, you can understand exactly who it applies to and how federal prosecutors can use it in certain cases.

The memorandum reads as follows:

MEMORANDUM TO THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEYS AND ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE CRIMINAL DIVISION

FROM: THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

SUBJECT: Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases

In Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013), the Supreme Court held that any fact that increases the statutory mandatory minimum sentence is an element of the crime that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that for a defendant to be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors must ensure that the charging document includes those elements of the crime that trigger the statutory minimum penalty.

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