Julie Stewart was sitting at her desk at a think tank in the District 17 years ago when her telephone rang. It was her brother calling to say he had been busted for growing marijuana.
"How stupid," she recalled thinking. She figured he would get off with a relatively light punishment -- perhaps a little jail time, maybe probation. After all, she reasoned, he had no record. And it was "only" marijuana.
Instead, for cultivating 365 six-inch marijuana plants, Stewart's brother received five years in federal prison, a sentence Stewart considered harsh.
"I was astounded," said Stewart, 51, of Chevy Chase. "We are putting people in prison with sentence lengths that used to be reserved for the most violent offenders."
That was Stewart's introduction to the nation's mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which dictated how much time her brother would spend behind bars. Anguish over that sentence led her to establish Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), one of several advocacy groups credited with persuading the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently to relax the penalties prescribed for some crack cocaine offenses.
Stewart testified last week before the commission, which sets guidelines for sentencing defendants in federal court. Joined by people from as far as Texas and Kansas who have been affected by mandatory minimums, she urged members to make the new rules retroactive so that thousands of drug offenders would qualify for release from federal prison.
Stewart's advocacy began in 1991 shortly after her brother, Jeff, was sentenced. She enlisted two Capitol Hill lawyer friends to help her find other people affected by mandatory sentences. She organized a meeting and invited people to share their experiences. They came from as far away as Florida and New Hampshire.
"I remember sitting there as we each went around the room, listening to people say, 'My son got 17 years for his first offense' and 'My son got 24 years for his first offense,' " Stewart said. "I started to think my brother's five years was a bargain."
In its early days, said Stewart, the goal of FAMM was to gather information on as many egregious examples as possible. She found one nearby in Prince George's County.
Derrick Curry was a 19-year-old college student when he was caught with more than 50 grams of crack cocaine and sentenced to 19 1/2 years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute the drug.
Mandatory minimums came out of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which was pushed by then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) as Boston and the nation's capital reeled over the cocaine overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star and Celtics top draft pick Len Bias. The law established a tougher standard for defendants convicted of crack vs. powder cocaine.
Civil rights groups and some legal experts have long argued that the mandatory minimums unfairly target black men, who statistics showed were more likely to be in possession of the less costly crack form of cocaine than were white drug users.
Arthur Curry, Derrick's father, met Stewart at one of her meetings after his son was arrested. He said she taught him how to advocate for his son, now 37.
"Julie attended the trial with me and my family, and she was at the sentencing," said Curry, a former Upper Marlboro resident and longtime educator who now lives in North Carolina. "I had absolutely no experience. I didn't know what to expect. Just to have someone there who could give me information . . . was so important. We are forever grateful for Julie and FAMM and their intervention in our lives."
Indeed, Arthur Curry credits Stewart and her organization for helping him put the spotlight on his son's case. In 2001, eight years after he entered a federal prison, Derrick Curry was released in an eleventh-hour pardon by then-President Clinton before leaving office.
That Stewart would end up fighting for justice for thousands of men and women, some she will never meet, is not surprising, friends said. They describe the mother of two young girls as deeply committed to her cause and say she has spent countless hours advising and comforting families affected by mandatory minimums.
"For her and so many who get involved in this issue, it starts with your loved one, but then you meet so many people, and you realize it could be anyone's loved one that this could happen to," said FAMM colleague Monica Pratt. "It makes you feel compassion and anger about the ways these laws affect people."
A self-described libertarian, Stewart said she believes lawbreakers should face penalties. But the time, she said, should fit the crime.
"I think it's easy for members of Congress to forget how long 10 years is," Stewart said. "Sentences have gotten so inflated in the last 20 years that we no longer think about what that means to the person serving the sentence or their family."
Besides fighting to get mandatory minimums repealed, FAMM also works to change some states' sentencing laws and serves as a resource for organizations across the country.
"Julie is a very effective advocate, and she has a high degree of credibility," said Judge William W. Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, the first chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "She always has her facts down, and she firmly believes in what she is doing."
Stewart's work and that of her colleagues have led to some victories for FAMM. In 1991, Stewart went to work on Michigan's "650 lifer law," which required life sentences for anyone convicted of crimes involving 650 grams or more of cocaine or heroin.
FAMM hired someone to work against the Michigan law, and in 1998, the law was changed to reduce the mandatory sentence from life to 15 or 20 years. Michigan later repealed most of its mandatory minimum drug sentences, Stewart said.
Stewart said her goal is to see the end of such laws across the nation, just as similar laws were repealed 40 years ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, she said, drug offenders faced mandatory minimum sentences under the Boggs Act of 1951, named for its sponsor, then-Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.). The law was repealed by Congress in 1973 after it became clear the sentences served no deterrent value, she said.
"That reminds us that it can be done and the pendulum will swing back to more reasonable sentencing," Stewart said of the Boggs Act. "I have to remain optimistic, or else I would close up shop."
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