Federal Parole Bill Orphaned with Death of Sole Sponsor -- Activists, Prisoners Look to Other Bills, Other Sponsors

From DRCnet's Week Online, Oct 4, 2002

It's been a rough week for drug war prisoners and their advocates. Just as prisoners were beginning to get excited about Rep. Patsy Mink's bill to reinstate parole in the federal system, the 74-year old Hawaii Democrat succumbed to complications from the chicken pox in Honolulu on Saturday.

"This is terribly sad news, and so sudden," said Monica Pratt, director of legal affairs for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (www.famm.org). "We applaud Patsy Mink for what she did. She showed leadership on an issue that is important but not popular, and that is courageous," Pratt told DRCNet.

"Patsy Mink believed in social justice and that bill was her swan song," said the November Coalition's (http://www.november.org) Nora Callahan. "The prisoners are disappointed, naturally, but there is hope in the prisons that her fellow compassionate Democrats will step up. Any representative who recognizes the injustice of the drug war can honor Patsy Mink's bravery and memory by cosponsoring her bill," she told DRCNet.

But they will need to fix it first, said Pratt. In an indication of the complexity of writing sentencing legislation, jailhouse lawyers, activists and Mink's staff have been wrestling over whether the Mink bill as written would or would not actually have an impact on the thousands of prisoners serving mandatory minimum drug sentences and whether it would be retroactive.

"Our reading of the bill is that it would not be retroactive and would not apply to anyone sentenced under the mandatory minimums," said Pratt. "Mink intended for it to be retroactive and to affect those with mandatory minimum sentences, but there were technical errors in drafting the bill. We were talking to folks in Minks' office about improving the bill, and FAMM will do our part to make a new version the best bill it can be so it impacts the most people," she said.

The November Coalition's Callahan wasn't so sure the bill was flawed, but said, "if it isn't retroactive, then let's fix it. Bills are improved all the time." Callahan said that the Coalition had faxed some suggestions to Mink's office before the veteran legislator died.

While Mink's bill was the most striking attack on the gluttonous growth of the federal gulag, it is not the only bill pending that addresses sentencing reform:

  • H.R. 1978, the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2001, sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) with 44 cosponsors, would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession, distribution, manufacture or importation of drugs. The Waters bill would also require the Attorney General's approval for federal prosecutors to take any drug case.
  • H.R. 697, the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 2001, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) with three cosponsors, would eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
  • H.R. 765, the Safety Valve Fairness Act of 2001, sponsored by Rep. Albert Wynn (D-MD) with 23 cosponsors, would make the 1994 safety valve law retroactive. Under this bill, the courts could apply sentencing guidelines instead of mandatory sentences to drug offenders who meet specified criteria.
  • S.B. 1874, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2001, sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), would amend the Controlled Substances Act to decrease the amount of powder cocaine and increase the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. The bill would also limit sentences for minor players and would establish a pilot program of home detention for certain elderly prisoners.

Both FAMM and the November Coalition criticized the Sessions-Hatch bill for addressing the crack-powder sentencing disparity by increasing powder cocaine penalties. "FAMM doesn't support and can't support the bill because of the way it tinkers with the sentencing ratios," said Pratt, "but there are some good provisions that would address some of those outrageous conspiracy cases we see where girlfriends with minimal involvement get longer sentences than major players. And the fact that two Republican senators introduced the bill is important; they've had a change of heart on mandatory minimums."

November's Callahan wasn't so charitable. "This bill is simply two drug warriors crying about injustice and doing nothing to stop it," she said. "According to the Sentencing Commission, this bill would have provided relief to only 67 prisoners sentenced on crack charges in the last three years."

The November Coalition also has reservations about the Waters bill, Callahan said. "It is not retroactive and wouldn't help anyone already sitting in prison," she said. "And while it is good that it eliminates mandatory minimum sentences except for 'kingpins,' we believe that kingpins are made in the courtroom, not on the street. As long as there is a flourishing black market in banned substances, people will deal in those substances, and as long as a person can take the stand and incriminate others in exchange for his own freedom, petty drug dealers will magically turn into kingpins in the courtroom."

The Rangel bill has the support of both FAMM and the November Coalition, but has been introduced in three consecutive sessions and gone nowhere, Pratt said. And all of the bills will die at session's end. Still, said Pratt, they can be revived next year. "It is very important for people who support these bills to write their representatives now and let them know the support for reform is out there.

Lawmakers tell us that just 25 letters from constituents is enough to make a difference," she said.

It is tough and depressing work, said Pratt, even for lawmakers. "When we have legislators sticking their necks out, we need to support and encourage them. Even Maxine Waters gets discouraged sometimes; she feels like she can't even get support from the constituencies that would benefit the most from her bill. We have to do a better job of letting these folks know we stand behind them. We have to be more strategic in our support of legislation."

Pratt counseled patience and fortitude. "I'm afraid I don't think the laws are going to change that quickly," she said. "Even though mandatory minimums are an issue of fundamental fairness, we still have a lot of work to do in educating the public. People should not lose hope, but they also need to get serious, because change won't happen without their help. People need to take their outrage and turn it into something productive. Our movement has not been effective enough in harnessing this outrage and anger in a way that actually affects the political process," she said.

"The sad thing is that for people working on these issues, in FAMM and in November, the people doing time in prison, the families doing time with them, it just seems impossible sometimes," Pratt continued. "These are dark times, but we have to keep working for a more positive future. And if you look at the history of the US, every social movement for change relied on the people to actually make the difference. We have to rally our people to get out and go to work to make the decision-makers get off their butts," she said.

The November Coalition's Callahan plans to kick some butt herself, she said, adding that the coalition's petition to end drug war injustice is becoming an organizing tool that is drawing in new blood and energizing existing members. The petition, which is not linked to any particular piece of legislation and which asks for some form of early release for drug war prisoners, is designed to show Congress that public support for sentencing reform exists and is growing, she said.

"Our petition will unite an entire federal prison population constituency," Callahan explained. "When you look inside the prisons, you see many people who are redeemable, most of whom are also nonviolent. For them to have no hope of earning early release is inhumane. We have one woman, a physician, sitting in a federal prison camp for seven years while her husband sits at home alone trying to raise three children. How dangerous is she? Well, there are no walls around her prison, yet we're keeping her family and thousands of others divided for no good reason. What's the sense in that?

[Ed: DRCNet is saddened by the untimely passing of Rep. Mink. Mrs. Mink spoke at our HEA reform press conference last May, sounding strong on the need to fully repeal the HEA drug provision, and as a prominent member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee was a key supporter of that effort. Her work helped advance many drug and justice reform causes, and she will be missed.]

Visit http://thomas.loc.gov for information on H.R. 5296, H.R. 3701 or any other federal bill.

Visit http://november.org/projects/relief/relief.html to join the November Coalition's petition drive "to end drug war injustice."

Visit http://www.november.org/thewall/cases/taylor-c/taylor-c.html to read more about Chrissy Taylor.

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