By Sean Meehan
WASHINGTON – When Julie Stewart’s brother was arrested for growing marijuana and sentenced to the mandatory five years in prison, the judge on his case said he wouldn’t hand out such a heavy sentence if it weren’t required by law. For Stewart, who was working at the Cato Institute at the time, it was the first time she’d heard of mandatory minimum sentences.
A year later in 1991, Stewart left Cato to found Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for an end to laws that assign minimum sentences to certain crimes. For the first two years, Stewart worked for free as she sought to raise awareness of the issue.
“Ignorance is bliss and I had no idea it would be so hard to persuade members of congress to change the law,” Stewart said.
Nonetheless, FAMM has had significant success lobbying for legislation, including a 1996 law that allows judges to ignore mandatory minimums in certain nonviolent cases and the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act which reduced minimum sentences for crack cocaine related crimes. Though FAMM does a significant amount of policy work, Stewart says their major job is to demonstrate how mandatory minimums impact prisoners and their families.
“Our job is to put a human face on the policies that are otherwise pretty abstract and dry,” Stewart said. “When you see a person who’s in prison for 15 or 20 years for a nonviolent drug offense and you talk to their mother and you interview their child and talk to them if you can, it’s very powerful.”
Though her brother has long since been released from prison, Stewart’s dedication to sentencing reform has only strengthened over the years. Stewart says that the issue has gained notoriety since she founded FAMM.
“There was a lot of ignorance about sentencing when I started FAMM,” she said. “Fast forward 20 years and certainly in the last year or so, it’s almost become a mainstream issue where many people understand that we have too many drug offenders in prison and too many nonviolent offenders in prison. What used to be a third rail issue has now become mainstream.”
Though more people are aware of the issue, Stewart says that changing the mindset of most Americans and moving toward lighter sentences is a work in progress.
“One of my concerns over the 23 years that I’ve done this is that Americans have become so accustomed to high sentences,” she said. “We’ve lost track of how much that time actually means.”
To demonstrate her point, Stewart referred back to her family’s experience during her brother’s five year sentence.
“My dad died during my brother’s incarceration,” she said, “and he wasn’t able to come out and grieve like a real human being does. We need to adjust our thinking again to remind ourselves how much time even one year is in someone’s life.”