Let sentences fit the crime: repeal NC’s mandatory minimums

North Carolina’s minimum mandatory sentencing laws can lead to long prison sentences for people with no prior criminal record. Above, an inmate mops the floor of a restricted housing unit at North Carolina’s Lanesboro Correctional Institution.
North Carolina’s minimum mandatory sentencing laws can lead to long prison sentences for people with no prior criminal record. Above, an inmate mops the floor of a restricted housing unit at North Carolina’s Lanesboro Correctional Institution. Charlotte Observer

Most people agree that individuals who commit more serious crimes deserve more serious punishments. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws force courts to impose one-size-fits-all punishments regardless of the seriousness of each crime and each offender’s role in it.

Consider the case of Kenneth “Graham” Stanley. In 2008, Graham was convicted of conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, trafficking by possession of cocaine, and trafficking by transportation of cocaine. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of 175 months (14.5 years) in prison. For such serious convictions, Graham’s sentence may seem justifiable. However, as is so often the case in North Carolina, the convictions and the sentence do not represent the man or his actions.

In his own words, Graham was a “kid junkie trying to get by and stay high with nothing to show for it.” After becoming addicted to marijuana and cocaine in high school, and later spending a brief stint at a North Carolina community college, Graham began selling marijuana and cocaine when he struggled to make ends meet.

One day, a friend called to arrange for a large-scale cocaine scale. Graham initially said no, but his friend kept calling. Eventually, Graham agreed to act as a middleman and drive the vehicle from which the sale would be made. Unfortunately for Graham, undercover law enforcement officers had arranged the drug sale and he and two codefendants were immediately arrested.

Following his arrest, Graham decided not to take a plea deal and went to trial. This decision cost him dearly. The friend who set up the drug deal and coerced Graham into driving pleaded guilty and received probation. It was at trial that the court learned important facts about both Graham and his crime. Graham was not a predatory drug kingpin, but rather someone who struggled with addiction. He drove the car, but never touched the drugs or the money, and he was unarmed and nonviolent. Perhaps most importantly, Graham was a first-time offender with no prior convictions. Yet none of those facts mattered after the jury found him guilty. Because of the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the only fact used to sentence Graham to 14 and a half years in prison was the weight of the drugs found in his car.

FAMM recently presented the case for mandatory minimum reform to the General Assembly’s Task Force on Sentencing Reform for Opioid Convictions. Towards the end of the meeting, prosecutors expressed support for the creation of a sentencing “safety valve” exception for drug mandatory minimum cases in North Carolina. A safety valve allows judges to avoid imposing the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum under certain circumstances, such as when a clear injustice would result. Numerous states (including Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia) and the federal government use safety valves, and they prevent thousands of unjust and unnecessarily lengthy punishments from being handed down each year.

One concern voiced by task force members was that North Carolina, under its current weight-based sentencing scheme, does not have the ability to differentiate between users and dealers, dealers and distributors, and distributors and major traffickers. A safety valve would provide the courts more tools to do just that. Under a safety valve, Graham’s judge would have had the ability to consider Graham’s substance use issues, his diminished role in planning and carrying out the transaction, and his lack of violence or criminal record at sentencing. Graham should and would have been held accountable for his misconduct, but taxpayers would not have been forced to pay for an excessive prison stay that won’t make them any safer.

The only sure way to prevent disproportionate sentences completely is for North Carolina to repeal drug mandatory minimums, as Louisiana recently did. (Texas has never had drug mandatory minimums.) But in the alternative, a safety valve is a smart-on-crime, state-tested, and state-approved way to reform North Carolina’s rigid mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, one of the few remaining in the southeastern United States. States that have enacted sentencing reform have been able to close prisons, save millions of dollars, increase public safety, and keep families intact. North Carolina lawmakers should follow suit and deliver the same benefits for Tar Heel families and communities.

Molly Gill is vice president of policy at FAMM, a national organization comprising affected families and individuals that supports criminal justice reform.