Before selling illegal drugs, Dejarion Echols worked several years for a youth correctional agency and a psychiatric residential-treatment facility for teenagers. He decided to pursue a college education but couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. Desperate to make money, the unemployed, 23-year-old, engaged father of two sold crack cocaine for six months in 2004.
Any chance Dejarion had for a meaningful, productive life quickly ended. On a tip, police searched his home, found 44 grams of crack cocaine, $5,700, and an unloaded rifle. After pleading guilty, Dejarion received two mandatory 10-year sentences: one for the drugs, the other for the gun.
Dejarion admits he sold drugs. He denies the gun had been used in illegal-drug activity.
The presiding federal judge, Walter S. Smith, expressed frustration at having to impose such a sentence. “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me,” he said, explaining that he was powerless to reduce it because of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.
Enacted by Congress decades ago, mandatory-minimum sentences have dramatically affected the federal criminal-justice system. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased 800 percent , largely due to drug-related mandatory-minimum sentences. The federal system is the largest in the United States holding 217,000 prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for a drug offense. Fewer than 8 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a violent crime.
Nearly three decades after the Anti-Drug Abuse Act created many mandatory-minimum sentences, a bipartisan cohort in Congress is examining consequences of the harsh penalties. The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. The act would apply 2010 crack-cocaine sentence reforms to people currently incarcerated, potentially allowing earlier release. It would also authorize judicial discretion in certain cases.
The Smarter Sentencing legislation is poised for a vote in the Senate. Faith leaders, energized by growing concern regarding mass incarceration, are mobilizing to pass the bill. During May, an interfaith coalition, the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group coordinated by The United Methodist Church, General Board of Church & Society, launched a grassroots campaign among clergy to influence U.S. Senators to support the legislation.
As of mid-May, the Smarter Sentencing Act has 24 Senate co-sponsors. Its alignment of liberals and conservatives includes Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Supporters of a House companion bill are similarly diverse led by Reps. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Bobby Scott, D-Va.
Enthusiasm for mandatory-minimum sentencing reform has several factors fueling it. Many faith communities express concern about the impact of excessive sentences on individuals and their families. Those leaving incarceration often haven’t had adequate rehabilitation, their absence has strained family relationships, and the prolonged disconnect from communities has made finding employment exceedingly difficult.
Furthermore, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent judiciary agency that analyzes federal crime policies and sets sentencing guidelines, has found that mandatory-minimum sentences cause unfair racial disparity. Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of persons sentenced to mandatory minimums, according to the Commission. For example, among defendants sentenced to federal prison for crack-cocaine offenses, 83 percent are African American. This stark statistic holds even though rates of crack use are consistent across racial lines, and research indicates that buyers generally purchase illegal drugs from someone in their own racial group.
Still others touting sentencing reform are enticed by financial savings. The Bureau of Prisons consumes more than 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget, a proportion that will keep growing if reforms are not enacted. At a time of significant belt tightening, the cost of prisons allows less money for victim services, prisoner re-entry to society, and crime prevention.
Recidivism rates remain high. The “corrections” promise has not been fulfilled.
Prisons are seen as yet another ineffective government program. A more cost-effective, successful alternative to incarceration for low-level nonviolent offenses could well be intensive community supervision requiring employment, school or skills training.
While Congress considers reform, Dejarion remains incarcerated. His expected release is 2023. In the meantime, his family will struggle to make ends meet, and his daughters will grow up. Dejaraion undoubtedly regrets the decision he made to sell crack cocaine. He doesn’t need another decade in prison to learn his lesson.
Kara Gotsch is the Director of Advocacy for the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group. If you are interested in learning more about the Smarter Sentencing Act, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Mass incarceration illustration, Linda Bucklin/ Shutterstock.com