The Justice Department headquarters in Washington. (J. David Ake/Associated Press)

When Lori Clare Kavitz’s sons were 3 and 4 years old, she got worried that her husband would start hurting them, as he’d been abusing her “physically, emotionally, verbally” for years. Kavitz’s mom was trying to figure out a way to help her and the kids leave their father. But something went very wrong — her husband must have realized something was up. He went to her parents’ house, grabbed a gun and killed himself in front of her dad. “I’m lucky my parents didn’t lose their lives that night,” Kavitz writes to The Watch.

The aftermath was hard. “My emotional trauma and fear of not being able to provide for [my sons] led me to choices that I will always regret,” she says. Her regretful decision-making was not of an uncommon variety: After her husband’s death, she got involved with the wrong guy. He started dealing meth from their home, and when he was arrested, the state went after her, too, casting her as his assistant and charging her with conspiracy to distribute meth. The man who sold them the meth cooperated with prosecutors, was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and is now out. Her boyfriend got 20 years. Lori Kavitz got 24 years.

“She kept her mouth shut, didn’t say anything,” her son, Collin, tells the Watch. “He opened his mouth and tried to pin it all on her.”

Kavitz hasn’t seen her two sons in more than a decade because it’s too expensive for them to travel more than a thousand miles to visit her in prison in a different state. “I have 3 grandchildren that I have never met as I am serving my time in Florida and I am from Iowa. Too far for young struggling families to travel,” Kavitz writes.

She’s one of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders hoping to have their sentences commuted by President Obama before President-elect Donald Trump replaces him in office — less than two months from now. She’s got a strong ally: the judge who sent her away for almost a quarter-century, who in a letter stating his support for clemency literally begged the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney for her release.

“I became aware of this request late yesterday afternoon and immediately cancelled my Saturday family plans to come to my chambers so I could urge you, no, beg you, to quickly move the President to grant Lori Clare Kavitz executive clemency,” U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett wrote.

“Of the more than 4000 federal offenders I have sentenced to federal prison in four districts spanning all the way to the farthest reaches of our federal courts in the District of the Northern Mariana Islands — Ms. Kavitz stands out to me, no screams out to me, for mercy and earned clemency.”

Kavitz’s son Collin gets why Judge Bennett has a troubled conscience but still doesn’t understand why he couldn’t do anything to help his mom back then. (Before the 2005 case United States v. Booker, federal judges were required to hand down sentences in accordance to federal sentencing guidelines. Kavitz, who was sentenced in 2002, got a number of automatic enhancements for things like there allegedly having been a gun in the house, even though no gun was found.)

The government’s crusade to save 12-year-old Collin and his 11-year-old brother Colton from the dangers of meth began before their mother’s arrest, when the Iowa Department of Human Services came to their home and whisked them off to foster care because child protection agents thought there was meth in the house.

It didn’t go well. If you want an illustration of the “freakiness” of humanity, Collin tells The Watch, check out foster care. In the first home, he says, they were locked in a basement at night. “A horror-movie dungeon basement,” he recalls. Collin says the man informed the two brothers that this was necessary because his wife liked to walk around naked in the morning.

The second home was worse, Collin says. The man of the house liked to take showers with the foster kids. “‘Hey, want to take a shower with him?’” Collin alleges the wife asked him. “‘The last kid that was here had to take showers with him.’ I was like, what do you mean he had to?”

“That was … I wouldn’t wish anybody to go through that type of s—,” Collin says.

The boys were sent back home to their mother. But soon after, police came to arrest Lori and her boyfriend.

“I remember when they kicked in my door,” Collin says. As police officers raided the home and detained his mom and her boyfriend, he and his brother waited outside. When they’d arrested their mom, agents asked them if they had somewhere to go. They said their grandma’s house, and officers told them to just walk there.

Kavitz’s arrest and long sentence were devastating. The boys got sent to a group home. Then, they were sent to live with a family member, but came to believe that person was more interested in the Social Security money they were getting from their father’s death than in taking care of them.

Colton got put back into foster care, Collin ran away, and for the next few years he didn’t really live anywhere, as he worked to get his high school degree. At night, a friend snuck him into his parents’ basement so he could get some sleep.

“Living with my mom, having the drug s— going on wasn’t really that bad compared to where they were trying to save us,” Collin says. “My mom was a first time nonviolent drug offender. That doesn’t seem right. She didn’t kill anybody.”

His brother Colton, who wishes he could introduce his young daughter to his mom, agrees. “Through this whole situation, it wasn’t like my mom is a bad person. Never been in trouble before, never had any issues with the law.”

***

Election analyses sympathetic to the rural areas that helped propel Donald Trump to power tend to list the series of blights affecting them. Given the media spotlight on heroin, addiction often tops the list. And it is important to highlight the impact of addiction on families and communities, and provide resources for people struggling with drug and alcohol problems. Or better yet, invest in policies that help lift the stressors that lead to and perpetuate problematic drug use, such as help with child care and higher wages. Or create jobs that give people a sense of purpose — the best weapon against addiction.

But drugs and addiction aren’t some God-issued pestilence ravaging families and communities. Drug panics tend to generate aggressive criminal-justice responses that in themselves split apart families and communities.

It wasn’t the chemical compound methamphetamine — a drug almost identical to the legally prescribed Adderall — that split Kavitz’s family apart. Her sons were sent to foster care because child protective services decided that was better for them than living with their mother. Kavitz got such a long sentence because by the time the “meth panic” peaked in the late 1990s and 2000s, legislators had already given prosecutors the means to seek long prison terms even for people who didn’t commit violent crimes. The legal and ideological blueprint was laid out by the crack panic of the 1980s, when aggressive policing and prosecutions devastated black communities.

There are important differences between the “meth panic” and the “crack panic”: It’s politically easier to wage a war on poor minorities, and it’s easier to aggressively police in cities. “Rural and small-town policing operations are much smaller than those in urban areas. They employ fewer people and often cover larger areas,” Drake University anthropology professor William Garriott says. But like the wars against drugs like marijuana and crack, the one against meth also relied on aggressive prosecutions.

“Policing users has tended to follow conventional drug enforcement techniques of arresting low-level users and distributors with the hope of getting more information in order to locate and arrest larger-scale suppliers or producers,” Garriott observes.

And the heavy policing of drugs does not appear to substantially influence addiction. As this graph published in the Atlantic shows, addiction rates have largely stayed the same even as we have poured more and more money into fighting drug use since 1970.

In the late 1990s, Travis Linnemann worked as a probation officer in Kansas. That’s around the time the state sounded the alarm over meth. “A lot of the trainings I’d receive and supervisory instruction was on the threat of meth. And the rhetoric we got from the state didn’t [necessarily] match up with observations in the field,” Linnemann, now a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, tells The Watch.

One day out of curiosity, he pulled up stats from a Kansas probation database to see how many high-risk probationers tested positive for meth: Over six years of data, he says he found that only 2.7 percent of drug tests turned up meth, a comparable number to cocaine.

There are regional variations and fluctuations in use through time, but still, he found the public campaigns like “Faces of Meth” — mug shots of reported meth users — overblown and damaging.

“The Faces of Meth … that solidified the idea of the zombified white user overtaken with this disease. What that doesn’t question is, what else is going on in a person’s life? It might be that they’re poor or have poor health care coverage.”

Linnemann points to the parallels between the crack and meth panics.

“I think that after the concern for crack cocaine kind of subsided politically, and we [had] raised these really draconian laws and police responses to crack, meth was politically expedient,” Linnemann tells the Watch. “So you’ve got the rural Midwest, these white working class landscapes that weren’t associated with crack, which was crafted as supposedly this ‘inner city black ghetto drug’ — this just lined up nicely.”

Linnemann points out that he observed all kinds of unhelpful anti-drug strategies in his time in Kansas. “They punished meth users disproportionate to how they treat cocaine users,” he says. “In the 2015 Kansas sentencing guidelines, depending on criminal history, a person convicted of possession of one gram of meth would face anywhere from 14 months to 51 months in prison. On hundred grams of methamphetamine — roughly equal to ¾ cups of flour — would face a sentencing range of 138 to 204 months in prison. By comparison, it would take 10 times that amount of cocaine to equal the same sentence and 300 times as much marijuana.”

“Any manufacture conviction — whether we are speaking of a small batch of meth cooked in a two-liter bottle or large amounts produced by a super lab — would automatically qualify for the same sentencing range. By comparison, a person would be allowed two manufacturing convictions for all other drugs (except heroin) to qualify for the highest guideline range.”

Like with many drugs, the wide majority of dealers were small-scale.

“People think it’s all Walter White from ‘Breaking Bad,’” Linnemann says. “But most producers follow a very unsophisticated process which can be accomplished by one person and produce enough meth for a single person.”

“We knee-jerk. We hit everything hard,” he notes.

A graph of the breakdown of federal drug charges (below) from the U.S. Sentencing Commission illustrates this point, with crack and meth mirroring each other in size (although the meth portion is still smaller than crack and powder cocaine combined).

(United States Sentencing Commission)
(U.S. Sentencing Commission)

Federal drug offenders make up a small slice of incarcerated people in America, but given that the United States incarcerates roughly 2.3 million people, the number of people harmed is still quite large.

Kavitz’s hopes now ride on Obama, the only recent president to take a serious interest in criminal-justice reform and to try to undo the damage brought about by mandatory minimums, the drug war and overly aggressive prosecutions. When Trump takes office, Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department is likely to be far less sympathetic to people like Kavitz.

When I ask Collin if he thinks the president will send his mom home, he says, “I hope so. … Trump ain’t gonna do s—.”