Attorney General Eric Holder's recent announcement that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent crimes marks a shift in American law enforcement and penal policy.
Federal prosecutors call mandatory minimum sentences one of their best tools in the war against illegal drugs. The sentences usually call for years of prison time depending on the quantity and type of drugs. Critics argue that such sentences take away judicial discretion from judges and are partially responsible for the explosion in the U.S. prison population.
In April of 1998, twins Lawrence and Lamont Garrison were about to graduate from Howard University in Washington D.C. Both worked at the U.S. Justice Department and planned to attend law school. Then, they got the shock of their lives.
The man who had repaired their car a year earlier was indicted for cocaine and crack distribution. He told drug agents that the Garrisons had been involved in the drug conspiracy.
“They questioned me and showed me a picture of Tito Abea," said Lawrence, who along with his brother, ended up serving a mandatory minimum sentence. "They said, 'Have you ever seen this guy? And I said, 'Yes, he fixed my car.'”
The Garrisons found themselves trapped on the darker side of federal laws that set mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses -- laws intended to make it easier to prosecute drug kingpins.
The garage owner faced a mandatory 10 years to life in prison. The only way to reduce that sentence was to implicate someone else -- the Garrisons.
Critics of mandatory sentences say that is a common practice in drug cases. They also say the people implicated often have nothing to do with the crime.
“So they will give someone up," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences. "Other times, people actually make up names, and say, 'Well, yes, so and so did this. I saw him one time.'”
Lamont Garrison remembers being offered the opportunity to reduce his time.
“They said, o.k. Mr. Garrison, this is your opportunity to help yourself. 'Well help myself? How? What do you mean?' 'Well you know what this is about you guys are doing XYZ, you got to tell us what you are doing,'” he said.
“They call it the best tool in their arsenal. Because they can hold a hammer over a defendant’s head and say either you give us more Information or you are going to get a five- or 10-year sentence,” said Julie Stewart.
But the Judicial Conference of the U.S. opposes mandatory minimum sentences because they tie judges' hands.
The Garrisons were never charged with possession, just conspiracy, and maintain they knew nothing about the drugs. They say they refused to lie and ruin someone else’s life.
A federal jury in Virginia convicted the Garrisons on the testimony of the garage owner and his brother. Prosecutors presented no other evidence against them.
Those in favor of mandatory minimum sentences argue no judge should have 100 percent discretion when it comes to sentencing. Georgetown Law School Professor William Otis says mandatory minimums ensure justice is applied evenly across the legal system.
"There is written across the entrance to the supreme court: "equal justice under law." Where you give judges 100 percent discretion, you are taking taking a big gamble that there isn't going to be anything like equal justice," he said.
Lawrence served 12 years in prison, his brother almost 14. The garage owner who implicated them was sentenced to 18 months. The brothers no longer have any interest in the law. They say the system is corrupt, and federal mandatory minimum sentences play a big role.