Washington Post Magazine: Cracking Open

Michael Short, on a Hyattsville basketball court
Michael Short, on a Hyattsville basketball court (Hector Emanuel)
  Enlarge Photo    
Vanessa M. Gezari
Freelance Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008; 12:00 PM

Michael Short, who spent most of his 20s and half of his 30s in prison, knows the downside of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. He served 15 years in prison for selling crack cocaine -- more time than many murderers.

Writer Vanessa M. Gezari was online Monday, June 2 at noon ET to discuss her Washington Post Magazine cover story, "Cracking Open."

A transcript follows.


Vanessa M. Gezari: Hello and welcome. I was inspired by Michael Short's determination to become the man he wants to be despite the guilt he still feels about his role in the drug trade. We've all made mistakes -- ideally, we take responsibility for them -- but some mistakes have much more lasting consequences than others, and we don't always know the difference until it's too late. I look forward to answering your questions about the story.


Washington, D.C.: While I've always opposed the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, I had never before your article seen laid out the five factors that led to this result. I have to say that, somewhat to my surprise, some of these factors (more disruptive to the community, use of children as runners) actually make some sense. I still think the massive disparity is ridiculous, I'm glad to know it's not entirely due to racism.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for your question. You raise a good point. From what I can figure out, several of the prominent legislators who pushed for the bill in 1986 were African-American, and in fact, black communities suffered greatly from drug-related violence during the height of the crack epidemic and wanted a solution. Based on my reporting, it seems that many of the problems that initially seemed so severe with crack were actually related more to the way it was distributed -- by neighborhood-based groups on street corners -- than to the drug itself. A lot of the violence in the 80s stemmed from turf wars. When demand for the drug declined as its effects became apparent, so did the competition on the supply side. That's part of why, over time, crack doesn't appear to be linked to much more violence than other drugs. At least that's my understanding. Thanks.


Palm Beach, Fla.: Really enjoyed this article and the journey of Mr. Short, it is extraordinary and as a fellow citizen I am very glad he is back. In your reporting did you consider looking at the story of crack in the neighborhoods that Mr. Short was living? Clearly part of it is an imprisonment of the youth in the trade and the effect on their families and neighborhoods, but what about the effect of the crack trade's impact on drug users and their families? Did Mr. Short express an opinion about the drug trade's impact on his neighborhood?

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for your question. I did consider looking more closely at the neighborhoods themselves, but as I got deeper into the reporting, it became clear to me that Mike himself was worth a whole story, so his character moved to center stage. And yes, he has many opinions about the damage that drugs did to his and other neighborhoods. During our first interview, he told me that he felt that he had been part of the problem in, as he put it, tearing up his community. Now, he said, he wants to be part of the solution, whether by mentoring young people or in some other way. I hope he's able to contribute -- he has a lot to teach.


Lyme, Conn.: Beyond the issue of crack cocaine, do you have any comments on the general issue of mandatory minimum sentences? It seems to me we put a lot of people in prison for long terms where the additional sentence has little use, in fact may be a negative, especially when young people spend time in prison where they mostly learn how to become better criminals.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Good question. Some people, especially those who oppose mandatory minimums, see the crack cocaine guideline changes that I wrote about (which make some offenders eligible for reduced sentences) as the death knell of mandatory minimums for all drug crimes, or at least the beginning of a massive correction. I guess from my point of view, from talking to judges in particular, mandatory minimums just seem like a one-size-fits-all solution to what are often very complex cases. But without them, sentencing can be all over the place. As a society, I think we have to find a a balance between considering each individual story and assigning standardized punishments based on the severity of a particular crime. That's a tough thing, as the history of these laws shows.


New Carrollton, Md.: Good Morning,

I am dealing with a very similar situation with my son, who is incarcerated in Roanoke Virginia. I need help, he has never been in any trouble, and although he made some bad choices, he is a very good child. The story behind his arrest is very long, but my husband and I have been driving down there for every hearing, and showing our support. He has not had a trial yet, and we are looking for a lawyer to help us now. Can you suggest anything? We are desperate for help, we do not know what to do.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Hi, thanks for your question. I'm not sure whether your son's case is in federal or state court, but you might try getting in touch with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which has done a lot of advocacy on this issue. They are easily searchable on the web. If you have trouble reaching them, email me (vgezari@gmail.com) and I'll put you in touch.


Anonymous: Mike: I am Luke Fennell and I served as your high school principal. I remember all of you who were the State Basketball Champions and how challenging that year was for each of you. Breaking the backboard in celebration was fun! I am so sorry to know of your years in prison, but I admire your courage and the voice you are giving to your story. Please stay focused on the good. Stay focused on tomorrow. I am proud of you. And, remember, once a Northwestern Wildcat, always a Northwestern Wildcat!! You are making this world a better place to be. May God truly bless you.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Mr. Fennell, good to hear from you. Mike remembers you well. I will pass your comments on to him. I know he'll appreciate hearing from you.


New York, N.Y.: I'm really curious to see the responses to this piece. But most of the people I know feel that drug sentences are too short, not too long. "Lock 'em all up and throw away the key." Maybe that's because of all the drug violence we used to have here in NYC. The majority of people don't use and don't deal drugs, this sentencing thing is a concern of a minority. How do you counter that mentality?

Vanessa M. Gezari: Good point. I know lots of people who feel the way you describe. I think there are some basic issues of fairness to consider here with regard to differences in the way, for instance, crack and powder cocaine crimes are punished. It's also worth thinking about the immense cost of incarcerating people like Mike for decades when they could be out earning money instead of being a burden on taxpayers. Drug crimes are serious, and you want people to change, but what changes people? Everyone's different. That's why I think, all in all, it might be better to take a more individualistic approach to drug sentencing. Some people will learn their lesson after two weeks in the county lockup; some will never learn it. That's what judges are for.


Washington, D.C.: Does Mr. Short think that the Second Chance Act will be helpful in his future endeavors or for others coming into society?

washingtonpost.com: About the Second Chance Act (Reentry Policy Council)

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for this question. Mike and I haven't talked specifically about the Second Chance Act, but I think it's clear that more re-entry programs are needed for ex-offenders. Mike came out of prison, in my view, incredibly well-adjusted. But it's quite an effort -- a transformational effort -- to return to the free world after that long in prison. I think more federal money for reintegration and treatment can only help.


LaPlata, Md.: I am the Executive Director of an agency that assists adults with disabilities. I currently have a position open for a certified trainer at our center in LaPlata. This is a brand new addition to our current services. We are eager to get it off the ground and Mr. Short may be the perfect person to take on this challenge. I would really like to discuss this unique position with him. It could be full time with benefits or part-time.

Thank You,


Spring Dell Center, Inc

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks so much. I will pass your kind offer on to Mike.


Washington, D.C.: You failed to elaborate on other important aspects of Michael Short's sentence. For example, did he go to trial? If so, did he testify at trial? Was he offered a plea deal prior to his trial?

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for your question. We chose to focus the story more on the present than what happened back in the early 1990s, in part because I wasn't there and in part because I really wanted to look at what it feels like for someone like Mike to move forward, away from the past. Mike was asked to testify against his co-defendants and refused. He told me that he wouldn't wish jail on anyone, that he didn't want to carry someone else's incarceration on his conscience. He did go to trial -- it lasted six months. Some of his co-defendants testified against him, which is part of why he was sentenced to so much time.


Washington, D.C.: Four times now, the Sentencing Commission has recommended addressing the federal sentencing guidelines for crack, but the political will doesn't seem to be there. It seems too many in Congress are more concerned with appearing soft on crime than on making needed changes in the drug laws. What do you think it will take to move them?

Vanessa M. Gezari: This is a great question, much better directed to experts who have been watching the legislative process for years than I. I was pretty shocked to find so few people who support the current sentencing structure for crack and powder, and so many high-profile, tough-on-crime opponents, people like Senator Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, and Asa Hutchinson, formerly of the DEA. I cannot really figure out why the law hasn't changed, except for the obvious reason: that reducing drug penalties (or appearing in any way to be soft on crime) doesn't play well at the polls. Some advocates are very optimistic that the laws could change now. But it is an election year.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for covering this important story and Mr. Short's struggle. As you know, Mr. Short participated in our February Hill event and spoke movingly of his experiences. We at the ACLU have been working hard to move legislation aimed at focusing precious law enforcement resources at stopping the flow of drugs into communities, rather than just throwing the book at low-level offenders.

We have a YouTube video of Michael Short available here.

Thank you again for bringing attention to this story.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks. I'm posting this so that others who are interested can check out the link or follow up with you if they have further questions.


Anonymous: I get the disparity aspect but I think selling crack for a year is a bit more than a 'mistake'. I just don't understand why he would do this. Good school, good home. Fine, a lot of people do drugs and destroy their lives but I'm wondering, as a black woman, since our communities are most destroyed by this - why the justifications and excuses? Why the minimizing of a fairly serious crime? How many people were hurt by the trade he engaged in? Also your comparison with the major players was disingenuous at best - I'm sure if he had pled guilty and turned on his dealer friends at the time, he would have also received a reduced sentence.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Hi, thanks for your question. I think that dealing drugs is definitely more than a one-off mistake -- it's not like accidentally locking your keys in the car -- and although I used that term in the intro to this chat, I want to be clear that Mike accepts responsibility for having taken part in something that profoundly damaged his community. I think by talking about a "mistake," we're really talking about is judgment. When is a person old enough to understand the requirements of the Social Contract? When do our moral compasses find their true North? We hope that happens early, but it often doesn't. The idea here is not to minimize the crime, but to see it in proportion, and to see the entirety of the man who committed it. All these variables are what make it so difficult to craft fair laws.


Columbia Heights: Hi,

I enjoyed your article immensely. It's clear that despite the high mandatory minimums, we have not "won" the war on drugs. But is it clear that we are not better off than we would have been without them? Can it be said that things would have been better, or no worse, had the government not imposed these harsh penalties?

Vanessa M. Gezari: Great question. I'm not sure I know the answer, though there are a lot of people -- even people who now support reducing or getting rid of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder -- who acknowledge the power of these laws to break up violent drug rings, especially in the 80s and 90s. But supply and demand are among the most powerful forces known to man. If you watch The Wire, you know that characters on the street are well aware of the drug weights and what triggers federal time (that's why they're always dropping those tiny vials on the curb when the cops pull up). At one of the hearings I went to, a federal prosecutor said that drug dealers now know to keep their guns and drugs separate (you can get more time for having both at once). So people have learned to beat the system. Still, no doubt some people who were very bad actors have served long prison terms because of these laws.


Rochester, N.Y.: From your description of Mike's time in prison, it seems like there was a definite point at which he sort of 'turned around' in terms of attitude and behavior. It is easy to see how, if he had been released prior to that point, he might have returned directly to the life of crime that he had left. And perhaps he has done so well now only because of the many many years in prison to reflect on things? It would be nice if minimum sentences could take this process into account in some way but I suppose the problem is that it is so variable for different people.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Finding the exact turning point was hard. When I asked Mike about it, he described it more as an evolution -- something linked in important ways to his growth from boyhood to manhood. Some ex-convicts have told me that prison saved them, that it was the closest they ever came to a university (as in the Autobiography of Malcolm X). I do think that Mike would have been a different person had he not gone to prison. He credits prison with getting him to stop dealing. So he and everyone else agrees, he deserved to do some time. The question is how much. In an earlier era, parole might have been a good option for him. It no longer exists in the federal system, but it seems to me there should be some way to go in and evaluate prisoners in the course of their sentences and say, this guy needs more time, this guy's ready. Of course, there are all sorts of complications that come with that, including the political consequences of making the wrong decisions.


Fairfax, Va.: I was expecting a sob story when I saw the article in the Post yesterday, so I was very pleasantly surprised to read a touching, thoroughly written, sensitive article about a topic that many would feel deserves no attention at all ("Lock 'em up and throw away the key!") I think it's wonderful that Mike has decided to make his situation into a positive learning experience. I wish him the best of luck with his life and relationships.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks. I think Mike will appreciate that.


Potomac, Md.: Hi In your article, it mentions that Mike earned an associates degree in business management. Was this a college level degree?

If it was, then he is truly amazing. Has he considered any further education?

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for this question. Yes, as far as I know it was a college-level degree that he earned through a correspondence class. I'm not sure what his future holds in terms of education. From watching him work out with clients, I get the sense that he really enjoys being a trainer and he's talented at it. I think he's got his hands full making that career avenue bear fruit at the moment.


New York, N.Y.: The War on Drugs is a joke. A total waste of money at best and racist policy at worst. The fact that one in every one hundred Americans is in prison is evidence that this country's penal system is out of control. That said, did you have a chance to talk to Mike about his view of the penal system in general? I was amazed out how he had overcome his rage.

Vanessa M. Gezari: This is something that also interested me greatly: how do you overcome your feelings of rage and frustration when something like this happens, even if you did arguably bring it on yourself? Mike told me that if you get a flat tire or break up with your girlfriend, you can feel like the unluckiest person in the world, but the fact is that bad things happen to everyone -- even if the bad thing that happens to you is being sentenced to 20 years in prison -- and you just have to do your best and get over it. As far as I can tell, Mike's main concern at this point is to be a good citizen -- but what does that mean, exactly? One thing it means is that he's trying to change what he thinks is wrong with the system. That's why I was so impressed by his decision to speak before Congress. He hasn't given up.


Washington, D.C.: I was pleased you talked about the myth of the crack baby, and it was interesting to hear that Len Bias had not smoked crack, after all. I would have liked to have learned more about Mike's girlfriend, and why she waited so many years for his return.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Thanks for this question. I think that in Mike, Vanessa found someone she could trust, and it didn't seem like she saw that many other men around in her community who were as dependable. In a way, the fact that he was in prison meant that she could take care of herself. She raised her child and pursued a career that made her financially independent, something many African-American women long for, but that some of the women she knew couldn't achieve because the men in their lives were more of a liability than an asset.


D.C.: Does Mr. Short want to get involved in mentoring young men? It seems the biggest way he can repay society (I think his sentence was excessive) is to try to guide a young man away from the drug "thug" lifestyle.

Vanessa M. Gezari: Yes, he does, very much. He spoke to a group at American University this spring and has been invited to speak at a school and a summer sports camp in the near future; he also has two young nephews whose lives he wants to shape. I hope he takes advantage of those opportunities because he's really impressive when he tells his own story. When he got out of prison, he was appalled to find that some teenage boys respected him just because he'd done time. He was like, they should be respecting the guy who helps the old lady across the street or brings home groceries to his family, not me. So he has a good understanding of the mentality, and what might be done to address it.


Vanessa M. Gezari: Thank you all so much for taking the time to read the article and ask such thoughtful questions. I wasn't able to get to all of them, so if you want to follow up with me by email, please do (my address is posted earlier in this chat, as well as at the end of the story).
For those of you who want to contact Mike, the best thing would be for you to email me, and I will forward your emails on to him. Thanks again.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company