On March 24, a group of men and women gathered in Washington, DC to celebrate an organization that has been fighting for 25 years to change mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, works tirelessly for those unfairly sentenced to harsh penalties for minor crimes—a majority of which are non-violent low-level drug offenses. Under founder Julie Stewart’s fearless and dedicated leadership, FAMM has brokered a bipartisan discussion of mandatory minimum laws, and won the release of thousands of prisoners through reforms of those laws, or, sometimes, clemency. More than 310,000 people have benefited from sentencing reforms championed by FAMM at both federal and state levels.
“We have been chipping away at this issue for 25 years,” Stewart told HIGH TIMES on the day of the event. “I had no idea it would take this long.”
The celebration featured over 40 guests who served decades in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Stewart said, “I was in a room this morning with about 15 of the former prisoners and we went around the room. Each of them said how long they’d been in prison, and I kept hearing 21 years… 15 years… 21 years… 20 years… 17 years… 30 years.” The evening was not only to celebrate the work that FAMM does, but to celebrate those men and women’s freedom after the senseless amount of time they served behind bars.
Stewart’s commitment to reforming mandatory minimum laws was sparked by her own brother’s conviction and sentencing to five years in prison in 1991 following his arrest in Washington State for growing a few marijuana plants. The judge imposing the sentence stated that he believed the sentence was far too harsh, but he was bound by law to impose the five-year mandatory minimum. Stewart studied the mandatory minimum laws and then took action, founding FAMM and organizing a team of volunteer lawyers to fight for change.
One of the most remarkable things about FAMM is its wide array of support on both sides of the political aisle—from President Obama’s White House, the ACLU and other traditional criminal justice reform allies, to the American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, Koch Industries and the National Rifle Association. FAMM is an effective organization, doing essential work. Men and women caught committing minor, first-time non-violent offenses are sometimes sent to prison for years, decades or life, while murderers, rapists and other violent felons are often released a short time behind bars. “We’re not saying that if you break the law you shouldn’t be punished,” says Stewart. “We get it, it’s to be expected. But it needs to be a punishment that fits the crime.”
Support FAMM and the fight to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws. You can donate tax-deductible dollars, join the email list to stay up-to-date on the newest changes to sentencing laws, court decisions, legislation, and advocacy, and much more at famm.org.
Photo via C-Span