Ten years ago this spring, Karen Garrison watched as her twin sons were locked up in prison, for longer than she ever thought possible.
Lamont and Lawrence, then 25, had just graduated from university in Washington D.C. They had no prior record. They wanted to become lawyers. Instead, they were sent to jail for 15 and 19 years apiece, for conspiring to sell crack cocaine.
The judge had no say in their punishment. Tough, mandatory minimum sentences, crafted in 1986 at the height of the U.S. war on drugs, meant the Garrisons would go to prison, without parole, for many years.
After a decade of heartache, and with her sons still serving time, Karen Garrison has a warning for Canada: "Be careful with these mandatory minimums -- the punishment doesn't often fit the crime," she says. "It can destroy families."
In November, the Harper government introduced legislation to create Canada's first mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. Bill C-26, now before Parliament, would automatically send people to jail for fixed terms of six months to three years for selling even small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs.
Such changes -- Canada currently has no mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes -- fly in the face of almost all expert advice, including two internal reports produced by the Justice Department itself.
The Conservatives are also pushing ahead with Bill C-26 at the very moment the United States is repealing or reforming many of its own mandatory minimum drug penalties, because of mounting evidence that they don't work.
From California to Connecticut, state governments are rolling back mandatory sentences in favour of more nuanced rules allowing low-level street dealers, for example, or non-violent offenders, to enter addiction centres instead of prison, or to benefit from early parole.
Even at the federal level, where mandatory minimum drug laws remain intact, some Washington lawmakers are calling for change.
Yet despite the reformist trend, there also remains solid support for mandatory minimums in many states.
In March, the U.S. Congress took the first step in reforming the harsh sentencing regime for some crack cocaine offences, reducing prison terms and making the changes retroactive -- meaning thousands of inmates, including the Garrison twins, may soon have years cut from their sentences.
The Garrisons have always insisted on their innocence. No drugs, weapons or wads of cash were found in their possession. But they were convicted, along with a dozen others, after a witness implicated them in the conspiracy.
Because of mandatory sentencing, neither the twins' clean records, their employment history, nor the letters of praise from their university professors, counted for anything.
"The mandatory minimums got 'em," says their mother, a former beautician, who became an activist against such laws and now works for the Washington advocacy group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
"Of course, every person who goes before a judge is not innocent," she says. "But with mandatory minimums, a judge can't look at a person's history, their family support, the circumstances of their crime, or whether they might be fathers or mothers with children at home.
"If the sentence is mandatory, everybody just goes to jail."
Mandatory drug penalties have helped turn the U.S. into the world's leading jailer, with more than 2.3 million people in prison, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London.
The U.S. also has the world's highest per capita rate of incarceration -- 751 people in jail for every 100,000 in population -- more than Russia at a rate of 627, China at 119, and Canada at 108.
In 2007, the U.S. also passed a sobering milestone: more than one of every 100 adult Americans is now locked up in jail.
Mandatory drug laws contributed to this situation. Since 1980, the number of Americans jailed for drug crimes has soared to 500,000 from about 40,000.
The result is overcrowded prisons and overburdened corrections budgets. But the biggest problem is the failure of such laws to ensnare the criminals they're designed to target -- the kingpins and dealers at the top of the drug trade.
One reason is that prosecutors plea bargain away mandatory jail time in return for information that might lead to other arrests, but only mid-to-higher-level traffickers have information to trade. As a result, it's low-level dealers and addicts on the street, without information to share, who end up, bizarrely, with the mandatory sentences.
"Mandatory minimum's are not an effective policy tool," says Peter Reuter, co-director of the drug policy program at the Rand Corporation. "It's hard to find any evidence that the price of drugs has gone up, or availability has gone down, thanks to these laws."
Such evidence convinced dozens of state governments in recent years to reform their sentencing rules in the hopes of a more cost-effective approach to the problem.
In 2003, Michigan repealed almost all its mandatory minimum drug penalties, including a notorious law that sent offenders to prison for at least 20 years without parole, for transporting 650 grams or more of heroin or cocaine.
Since 2001, Hawaii, Washington state, Texas, North Dakota, Indiana, New Mexico, Louisiana, Connecticut and Maine have also repealed or softened the terms of their mandatory drug penalties, giving back to judges some of the discretion they once had to fix appropriate punishments to the circumstances of individual crimes.
There is also talk of change on the federal side, with at least seven bills now before Congress to reform mandatory crack cocaine sentences.
All three remaining presidential candidates have also endorsed mandatory sentencing reform for non-violent offenders.
Even former president Bill Clinton, whose administration oversaw the massive rise in incarceration rates in the 1990s, said in a February speech that most of the drug offenders who went to jail "should have been let out a long time ago."
Florida, however, still jails people for 25 years, merely for possessing a bottle of Percocet pain pills without a prescription.
New York maintains some of the toughest mandatory drug penalties in the country -- with nearly 40% of its prison population made up of drug offenders -- despite years of pressure on lawmakers to reform the law.
"Although I don't support the use of mandatory minimums for entry-level drugs like marijuana, especially in small quantities, I do support them for serious drugs like heroin, meth, LSD, cocaine and crack," says Charles Stimson, a former state and federal prosecutor and now a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank.
"There's no magic bullet for drug crime. But there's also no doubt in my mind that the use of mandatory minimums, when done properly and fairly, helps reduce crime. I would urge Canada to use them."
The one- to three-year sentences required under Canada's Bill C-26 are a long way from the 10-20-year penalties common in the U.S. But critics say a mandatory minimum of any length would still harm a low-level offender imprisoned under such rules, while adding to the financial burden of the prison system, and doing little to stem the drug trade.
"The only people these laws benefit are the politicians," says Chrystal Weaver, a Florida accountant who has campaigned against mandatory drug penalties in her state. "People tend to vote for these things because they like politicians who are tough on crime. But the devil is in the details. Mandatory minimums don't make sense."
"Canada should learn from America's mistakes in the war on drugs and just say no to mandatory minimum sentencing," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums in a letter to Stephen Harper last year, after Bill C-26 was introduced. "They are not a cure-all. Instead they will create a whole new batch of problems for Canadians everywhere."
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