Lawmakers reconsider mandatory minimum prison sentences

Stacy M. Brown | 5/8/2014, 12:12 p.m.

Ordered to prison on wire fraud charges, Andrea James embraced her 12-year-old daughter and five-month-old son before saying goodbye for two years.

A rude awakening and a harsh reality check awaited James, a disgraced lawyer, as prison officials escorted her to her new home: a small cell block where she’d bunk with other women of the same skin color.

“No one really told me about the injustices until I became incarcerated,” said James, 49. “What I encountered as a black woman walking into prison was heartbreaking because all I saw were black women, many of whom had never even received a parking ticket before but ran into a little trouble because they made a decision, a tough decision, on how they were going to feed their babies.”

James, who grew up in Northeast and practiced law for nearly a decade in New England before her incarceration, has fought vigorously to end mandatory minimum sentences since her release in 2011.

Her “Justice Roundtable” group, which works to reform the U.S. Justice System, meets monthly at locations around the District.

They’ve planned a, “Free Her,” rally scheduled to take place on the National Mall on Saturday, June 21, where James said thousands of individuals are expected to attend with the hopes of putting pressure on lawmakers and the Obama administration to reconsider policies surrounding mandatory minimums, particularly the incarceration of blacks and minorities, who make up the overwhelming majority of the nation’s prison population.

“People, including those in the black community, have a distorted view of who is in prison,” said James, who penned the 2013 book, “Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration.”

“They really don’t understand what’s happened in this country because of the ‘War on Drugs’ and what that really meant,” she said.

A study by the Center for Research on Globalization in Canada revealed that the U.S. houses 2 million, primarily black, inmates in state, federal and private prisons.

Today, nearly half of African-American men who grow up in the U.S. are arrested at least once by their 23rd birthday, Center for Research on Globalization officials said.

Further, African-American women in the U.S. receive sentences that are 480 percent harsher than affluent white males who commit similar offenses.

Ironically, the death of famed Maryland basketball superstar Len Bias led lawmakers to impose mandatory minimum prison sentences, particularly for drug offenses.

Bias, just 22, and drafted by the Boston Celtics, died of a cocaine overdose on June 19 1986. Bias’ death politicized the drug debate that year.

Democrats quickly pushed through a bill that introduced mandatory minimum sentences, taking away any discretion judges previously held.

“You had [lawmakers] say, ‘I want a drug bill, I want it in four weeks,’” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland, who served as counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary from 1979 to 1989.

“It set off kind of a stampede,” said Sterling, 62. “Numbers were picked out of the air. Ten-year mandatory minimum, routine sentences are 15, 20, 30 years without parole. Then you have conspiracy, and suddenly you have people facing 50 years, people facing either life in virtual terms or as a real sentence.”