A year ago James Graham was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Now he's serving 13 months in prison, and when he's released later this year, his felony record will prevent him from joining the armed services, owning a gun, getting a fishing license, or registering to vote. His crime? Selling two doses of LSD—about $5.00 worth—to undercover agents.
Graham is just one of thousands of Americans serving time under federal mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. A new organization, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, based in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to fighting such disproportionate punishment.
Founded in March 1991, FAMM publicizes unjust applications of mandatory minimum sentences through newspaper op-eds and TV and radio appearances; it organizes meetings around the country to teach concerned citizens how to effectively lobby their senators and representatives to repeal mandatory minimum sentences.
Federal mandatory minimum sentences, adopted by Congress in 1986 and 1988, were intended for major drug traffickers and violent criminals. They require certain categories of offenders to spend a minimum number of years in jail without possibility of parole; judges are not allowed to consider mitigating circumstances even when faced with minor, first-time offenders.
Mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes are as severe as sentences recommended by federal guidelines for major crimes against people and property: Involuntary manslaughter and possession of 11 pounds of marijuana both carry sentences of 18 to 21 months; robbery with permanent or life-threatening injury and possession of 500 grams (about one pound) of cocaine both carry sentences of 5¼ to 6½ years; conspiracy or solicitation of murder and possession of one-seventh of an ounce of LSD both carry sentences of 6½ to 8 years.
FAMM argues that "mandatory minimum sentences are unjust because first-time, minor offenders who could benefit from rehabilitative sentencing are often imprisoned for longer periods than child molesters, rapists, and murderers." The U.S. Justice Department estimates that we'll need to build four new 500-bed prisons per week in 1992 to keep up with the current rate of incarceration. FAMM questions the justice and wisdom of freeing serious criminals to provide room for first-time offenders like James Graham.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Long-Term Solution".