From Etta Mae Miller to JeDonna Young:
Michigan Reconsiders Drug-Lifer Sentencing 70 Years after the "Life for a Pint" Law
By Paul M. Bischke
Michigan's "drug lifer" law is under review. According to current Michigan law, anyone in possession of 650 grams of cocaine can be jailed for life, and 205 inmates are presently serving life terms under this statute. A coalition to reform the "650 Lifer" law (spearheaded by Families Against Mandatory Minimums of Michigan) has gained bi-partisan support for legislation introduced in the fall of `97. Critics of the current law hope to: (1) eliminate mandatory-minimum sentencing, (2) restore judges' case-by-case discretion in sentencing, and (3) make the reduced sentences retro-active to "alleviate the impact of prior disproportionately harsh sentences."
Michigan State Senator William Van Regenmorter (R-Hudsonville) introduced legislation in March 1997 that would maintain the existing mandatory-sentencing structure but provide parole eligibility after 15 years if the drug offender is willing and able to inform on others. Van Regenmorter's bill, which reduces further the small degree of discretion judges can employ under current law, is tied to a larger "truth-in-sentencing" plan that could lengthen sentences for all Michigan prisoners.
Michigan's "drug lifer" law has been opposed not only by various drug reform groups, but also by judicial and law-enforcement officials. John O'Hair, Wayne County prosecutor, says that the lifer law "did not accomplish its objective. We picked up a number of people who were only peripherally involved, some of them young, unsophisticated, and exploited by older, experienced criminals." Judge Terrance K. Boyle says, "I really think the whole system makes a mistake when it removes discretion... These intensively harsh penalties corrupt the system and force judges to violate their own oath."
As state lawmakers ponder the wisdom of life sentences for offenders of controlled-substance laws, it's worth noting that this situation is not new to Michigan. Long before it became a tough abstinence enforcer against cocaine and marijuana, Michigan had the nation's toughest laws against the demon drug of our grandparents' day: alcohol.
It's widely believed that Prohibition was strictly a crusade against alcohol dealers that imposed little if any penalty against the individual drinker. It's true that National Prohibition, as instituted under the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, did not punish the drinker for the glass of beer in his hand. But before, during, and even after National Prohibition, state anti-alcohol laws and local-option laws were in force in many states. Some of these state laws did mandate punishments against the drinker, and, according to Larry Engelmann's 1979 book Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor, Michigan's laws were the toughest.
In 1927, the Michigan legislature revised the state criminal code to require that "habitual offenders" must serve mandatory life-time prison terms. Being slightly more lenient than the popular "three strikes" laws of the 1990s, the 1927 law defined habitual defenders as those who had committed four felonies. Under Michigan's state Prohibition law, possessing alcohol was a felony. Any person who had committed three felonies, whether alcohol violations or other crimes, was automatically sent to prison for life if he or she was caught with as little as a pint of an alcoholic beverage.
In the fall of 1927, Lansing police officer Frank Eastman arrested Fred M. Palm for possessing two pints of liquor. When Palm failed to appear for his hearing, police entered his home with a bench warrant (not a search warrant) and found Palm in possession of 14 ounces of gin. After being convicted and sentenced to life, Palm appealed to the courts objecting both to an unlawful search and that the life sentence was a cruel-and-unusual punishment. However, Palm's conviction and life-long sentence were upheld.
In the fall of 1928, an Ionia farmer and a Flint bootlegger were both sentenced to life terms, the latter based on four offenses against the state's abstinence law. These convictions elicited no public disapproval. However, in December of 1928, officer Eastman arrested Mrs. Etta Mae Miller, a 48-year-old mother of ten, for a fourth violation of the state liquor law. Mrs. Miller was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The public outcry on this case led to a re-examination of Michigan's "Life for a Pint" law and an investigation of law enforcement practices against liquor.
Etta Mae Miller's husband, Alvin, had gone to prison before her on a state liquor violation (though not for life). An investigation revealed that the liquor found by Officer Eastman in the Miller home had been planted there by a fellow police officer.
Then-Governor Frank Green took action on the issue. In 1924, Gov. Green had objected to a court ruling that allowed police to obtain a warrant to search private homes based solely on the police officer's report of smelling a liquor odor nearby. This method, thought Gov. Green, smacked of "Czarism" and a "police inquisition." Gov. Green was not pleased at the spectre of 10 children being orphaned for a pint of gin. In January 1930, Gov. Green commuted the sentences of the state's five alcoholic life-termers to 15-year sentences and, in March, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed Etta Mae Miller's conviction.
Today, Michigan's 205 drug lifers are drawing far less sympathy than the five alcohol lifers drew in 1927, even though several mothers like JeDonna Young and Brenda Pearson are incarcerated for life under Michigan's current drug laws. Mindy Brass, a drug-lifer with a 12-year-old daughter, is in need of a heart transplant, a procedure denied to her as a prisoner. Melvina Smith is a grandmother among the drug lifers.
Michigan's severe drug laws have drawn fire from outside the state, as well. In 1994, the province of Ontario refused to extradite Daniel Jamieson, who faced a sentence of 20-to-30 years for possessing a kilogram of cocaine. Canadian officials objected to the extradition on grounds that the severity of Michigan's law was "barbaric" and a violation of human rights.