"I have met so many people whose lives have been shattered by [mandatory sentencing] laws. I will keep on fighting these injustices until I can honestly say that America’s sentencing laws reflect the basic tenets of American justice: Let the punishment fit the crime — and the offender’s role in the crime."
- Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
In 1990, Julie Stewart, a former flight attendant and public affairs director at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, became an activist against mandatory sentencing. Her brother had been arrested for growing marijuana in a garage in the state of Washington, had pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — the judge sentenced him to five-years in federal prison without parole. While criticizing the punishment as too harsh, the judge proceeded with the sentence because the law left him no choice. “My brother has long since left prison and now has a wife, a beautiful daughter and a good job,” says Stewart. “But I am still motivated by the unfairness of a system in which politicians mandate sentences for defendants they have never laid eyes on. I am also motivated by the faces of all those now serving needlessly long sentences — and their families who await their return.”
In 1991, Stewart founded FAMM. The national nonprofit organization is dedicated to challenging inflexible and excessive penalties required by mandatory sentencing laws. FAMM started with Stewart and boxes full of letters from prisoners and their families. Since then, the organization has grown to include 27,000 members, with 35 chapters in 25 states.
By putting a human face on mandatory sentencing, FAMM has played a major role in creating a new debate about the federal law, which mandates the same minimum sentence — five years — for possessing or selling five grams of crack cocaine as for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Working to change public perception, FAMM maintains a database of 9,000 cases that provide reporters and activists nationwide with compelling personal anecdotes. On the group’s website, visitors can click on a photo from a wedding or a graduation ceremony, and discover that the bride or the proud West Point graduate is now serving a sentence of 20 years, perhaps for giving a friend, who sold drugs, a lift to a party.
Most impressively, FAMM has succeeded in chipping away at federal and state sentencing laws. In 1994, FAMM lobbied for the passage of a “safety valve” to give federal judges discretion to reduce sentences for non-violent first-time drug offenders. Every year since 1994, 5,000 people — one in four nonviolent first-time drug offenders entering federal prison — have received sentence reductions of as much as three years. In 1998, FAMM succeeded in changing Michigan’s harsh lifer drug law, to allow for parole. FAMM is currently engaged in eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences in Michigan—retroactively—and has launched two new state projects in North Carolina and New Jersey.
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