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Pedro Riveiro waited anxiously at a federal prison in South Carolina for the news. In 1989, the college graduate had briefly peddled drugs for his boss at a Miami cell phone business. He was arrested four years later, after his former boss snitched in exchange for a reduced sentence of 16 months. On Jan. 20, Riveiro, six years into an 812-year sentence for cocaine distribution, learned he was one of 21 drug offenders whose sentences had been commuted by President Bill Clinton. “It was a shock, a total shock,” says Riveiro, 34, who now lives in Key Largo, Fla. It was also a coup for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a 10-year-old organization that fights to undo draconian federal and state drug laws and sentencing practices and which lobbied on Riveiro’s behalf. “This was a window of opportunity that would open and close quickly, and we thought, let’s try it,” says FAMM President Julie Stewart. Although Stewart says she had about 300 cases ripe for commutation, FAMM lobbied the White House for just a dozen, 11 of which were granted. Clinton also commuted sentences for six inmates from an earlier list that FAMM had sent him through Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. It is that sort of selective advocacy that has made FAMM an influential player in sentencing reform, despite its push for a politically unpopular cause. FAMM, whose core membership is made up of drug offenders and their families, may be best known for lobbying members of Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. But the 21,000-member organization has broadened its agenda in recent years. It now regularly uses the courts to challenge sentences, and it plans to wage battle against mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes where no violence occurred. Given the change in the White House and in the GOP-controlled Congress, the group’s mission may have just gotten tougher to achieve. And Attorney General John Ashcroft, for one, has not been one of the group’s allies. As a senator, Ashcroft snuck a provision into a 1998 budget bill that made the penalties for methamphetamine the same as for crack cocaine. FAMM had previously convinced another lawmaker to put a hold on such a provision. Stewart says she’s used to facing opposition. “There has been no progress under Democratic administrations,” she says. According to Stewart, Democrats sometimes feel forced to support more rigid measures to combat a liberal reputation, while Republicans, because of their tough-on-crime image, can sometimes take a more flexible approach to sentencing issues. HER BROTHER’S HELPER In the early 1990s, Stewart was the public affairs director for the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank, when she learned that her brother had been arrested for growing marijuana in Spokane, Wash. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced under mandatory federal law to five years in prison. Stewart says she was amazed to learn that many of the mandatory minimum laws were put together quickly and without much input beyond law enforcement. Some sentences were handed out regardless of the amount of the drug actually possessed by the defendant. For instance, one marijuana plant was considered one kilogram, regardless of the plant’s size. Stewart asked people at CATO and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws about mandatory minimum sentencing. No one knew much about it, she says. Stewart says she decided that she would advocate on behalf of those most affected by the mandatory minimum sentencing system — the incarcerated and their families. “My main idea was that in five years I could change these laws,” Stewart says. “I didn’t realize it would be so hard.” Stewart turned to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to identify some of the most compelling cases where mandatory sentences appeared excessive. Hundreds of cases flooded in, she says. In the spring of 1991, Stewart put together a meeting of judges and families of incarcerated drug offenders. Some family members were willing to start chapters in their states. And Stewart says she received $25,000 from one opponent of mandatory minimum sentences, which helped to jump-start the fledgling association. The idea was to have family members testify before Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission and reach out to politicians whose families had brushes with the law. The move paid off in 1994 when the House and Senate debated a mammoth crime bill. After convincing lawmakers that some people were spending too much time in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, FAMM successfully pushed for more judicial discretion in sentencing certain drug offenders facing mandatory minimums. FAMM also successfully lobbied the Sentencing Commission to change the way it calculated penalties for marijuana and LSD, which were based on the amount of the drugs. Until 1993, the weight of LSD included the weight of the paper or the sugar cube that the drug was placed on. For LSD, the commission established a standard dosage weight to define the total quantity. John Steer, a longtime general counsel and now commissioner at the Sentencing Commission, says FAMM brought views to the sentencing panel that weren’t represented before. The group, he says, has also been a formidable force in the drive to make sentencing laws more equitable and in ensuring that all offenders — even those sentenced under old guidelines — get the benefit of those changes. “Having the perspective of family members is helpful to the commissioners … even though we don’t always make the decisions that they want,” Steer says. TAKING IT TO THE STATES In 1995, FAMM expanded its efforts beyond the federal arena by attacking sentencing laws in several states. Stewart hired a general counsel and the group established pro bono partnerships with several law firms, including Crowell & Moring; Zuckerman, Spaeder, Goldstein, Taylor & Kolker; and Mayer, Brown & Platt. The group had hired Laura Sager to set up a coalition aimed at fighting harsh drug laws in Michigan, which had some of the toughest in the country, including a penalty of mandatory life without parole for offenders convicted of intent to distribute 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. By 1998, there were about 200 people who were serving this sentence. Sager worked directly with Michigan state legislators and family members to change the law. At one point, the former governor who had signed the bill publicly stated that it was a mistake. And in 1998, Republican Gov. John Engler signed the law that made it possible for some of these lifers to be eligible for parole after serving 15 to 20 years. Stewart says four people were immediately freed. FAMM also won a few impressive court victories, including a challenge to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ failure to reduce the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who completed treatment programs. In 1998, FAMM prevailed in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court when a 5-4 majority ruled that the Court had the authority to review lower court decisions denying habeas corpus petitions. Although this was a technical matter, it was the first FAMM case that reached the Supreme Court. “We look for individual cases that would have a large impact on sentencing laws or their application,” says Mary Price, who’s been FAMM’s general counsel since November. Price’s predecessor, Kyle O’Dowd, is credited with putting the litigation project together. FAMM now has an annual budget of about $650,000 and about 20 state chapters. It is a regular part of any sentencing reform bill or guideline change. Last year, FAMM successfully lobbied the Senate Judiciary Committee to remove a provision of a crime bill that would have implemented mandatory minimum sentences for the drug ecstasy. And it’s currently putting together a team of doctors to testify at a Sentencing Commission hearing this month on the addictive properties of ecstasy. Stewart says the commission, which was directed by Congress to strengthen the penalties for the drug, has proposed placing it in the same category as heroin, which FAMM believes is too harsh. Stewart says she is still trying to assess where the new administration will come out on sentencing reform. But she is confident that FAMM can persuade Congress to make the 1994 sentencing changes retroactive, which would allow people sentenced to mandatory minimum terms before the law was changed to have their sentences reduced. Stewart points to Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as being prime targets for FAMM’s efforts. Last year, Sessions, a member of the Judiciary Committee, spoke on the Senate floor about how mandatory minimums have put too many nonviolent drug offenders away for too long while leaving dangerous criminals on the streets. A Republican Senate staffer says Sessions continues to support mandatory minimums and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, but that the senator wants to ensure that the punishments under those schemes are proportional to the crimes. Stewart has no problems with that approach. “Republicans need someone, like Sessions, who is a former prosecutor, to put forth a bona fide plan,” Stewart says. “Nobody questions him.”

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