Todd Oppenheim is a lawyer in the felony trial division of the Baltimore City Public Defender’s office.
Getting a 25-year prison sentence without parole for a drug conviction nearly crushed 37-year-old Tracey Vincent’s hopes of changing his life. When he later learned that his cellmate was doing less time than he for a violent offense, it was like pouring salt on an open wound.
Twenty-five years without parole is the type of stint that should be associated with federal cases and serious crimes — not a case like this one. I represent Vincent, who is a nonviolent, African American man with a supportive family, a string of drug convictions and a substance addiction. Vincent’s excessive sentence has troubled me since it was handed down in a Baltimore courtroom in 2012 as we stood side by side. Remarkably, Vincent secured his release from prison this year. Here’s how the story unfolded.
Vincent grew up in East Baltimore and started selling drugs at 13, with his father’s encouragement. Almost as soon as he started dealing drugs, Vincent also started using them. The lifestyle got him almost as high as the drugs.
Always intelligent, Vincent got his GED in jail as an adult. He has occasionally worked odd jobs and was married for 17 years before his wife left him. Vincent has no children, but he has taken on his ex-wife’s children as his own. He lost friends and family members to overdoses and incarcerations, yet his mother and his girlfriend of several years stood by him through his last ordeal.
In August 2011, Vincent’s drug activity culminated in his final arrest. Undercover officers allegedly saw Vincent make multiple drug sales. Their reports provided no physical descriptions or arrests of the buyers nor the number of transactions. The officers took Vincent into custody and recovered five vials of cocaine, two tablets of oxycodone and $105. These were the kind of drug distribution allegations I’d seen in hundreds of police reports. My client was booked while police searched his house. (The police claim absurdly that Vincent said there was a gun in his house and that they obtained proper consent to search there.) They recovered 44 more vials of cocaine and drug paraphernalia — but no gun; Vincent was put behind bars.
The Major Investigations Unit (MIU) in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office indicted Vincent for the street sales and the drugs in the house. This means the state found Vincent, a nonviolent, drug-dealing addict represented by a public defender, to be worthy of special attention by MIU, which generally handles bigger fish. In April 2012, Vincent turned down a plea deal of six years in prison and instead went to trial. As with many defendants in the system, he did not agree with the entirety or the severity of his charges and he chose to roll the dice. The MIU pressed hard, even taping jail phone calls during the trial to use against Vincent. The house search and the street arrest were a damning combination that proved overwhelming to our defense that the police were not being forthright.
A jury convicted Vincent of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of oxycodone but found him not guilty on other charges. Prosecutors then invoked mandatory-minimum sentencing provisions based on Vincent’s record. The judge was powerless, and Vincent received a sentence more than four times as severe as the plea deal he had been offered.
Luckily for my client, Maryland passed the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2016. Justice reinvestment is a national movement calling for reductions in sentencing for many nonviolent offenses to reduce incarceration. Maryland’s law reduced penalties for drug possession and theft crimes, and it lessened the sting from minor probation infractions. It also eliminated mandatory-minimum sentencing in drug cases. The state legislature provided one year — Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018 — to ask for reconsideration of past mandatory sentences. My office is handling about 40 requests for Baltimore alone.
On Jan. 12, Vincent and I stood in the same courtroom where, six years before, he had thought his life was virtually over. We shared Vincent’s story with the judge. We introduced his social worker and a release plan that included drug treatment and follow-up. Vincent’s family was there. Despite the State’s objection to immediate action, the judge showed compassion and understanding and agreed to release Vincent on probation.
Undoing Vincent’s sentence is a momentary victory, but it is a drop in the bucket in the push for justice reinvestment.
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