Brother's Drug Sentence Ignited Woman's Crusade

Julie Stewart established Families Against Mandatory Minimums, one of several advocacy groups credited with getting some crack cocaine penalties relaxed.
Julie Stewart established Families Against Mandatory Minimums, one of several advocacy groups credited with getting some crack cocaine penalties relaxed. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

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.

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