Mandatory minimums do more harm than good, ex-inmate says
A female prisoner is returned to solitary confinement. (Photo: Danese Kenon, The Indianapolis Star)
A female prisoner is returned to solitary confinement. (Photo: Danese Kenon, The Indianapolis Star)

By Barbra Scrivner
Last updated 8:28 p.m. ET, March 17

On my worst day in prison, I decided to take my life. I had just been denied clemency — again — and I realized that I would never be free. I had already been locked up almost five years for a non-violent drug crime. That day, I ended my fight to go home to my young daughter and jumped 40 feet to what I hoped was my death. Miraculously, I survived my near fatal injuries but was partially paralyzed and lost my ability to walk. My prison now included the limitations of my own body.

The torturous journey that brought me to that bleak moment in prison began after my parents divorced.  My mom’s new boyfriend gave me marijuana and let his friend molest me. I was 7 years old. A string of relationships with abusive men followed, and I plunged into drug use. It was my only escape — albeit fleeting — from the pain. By high school, I was addicted to methamphetamine, and I eventually married a heroin addict.

When I became pregnant, I managed to find the strength to stay sober. After my daughter was born, I quit work to care for her and the bills began piling up. I collected welfare and pawned my belongings, but I still couldn’t make ends meet. From prison, my husband suggested I sell methamphetamine for some of his friends to make extra money. For a few weeks, the girlfriend of one of the manufacturers delivered the drugs to me, and my husband told me where to drop them off. When I earned enough to pay my bills, I stopped. But that didn’t save me from getting caught. I was arrested after authorities found small Ziploc baggies, drug paraphernalia and traces of a substance suspected to be methamphetamine in my apartment. I was tied to my husband’s drug distribution and sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

I may have deserved to go to prison but certainly not for 30 years. I felt that my case must have been an isolated one, but when I got to prison, I learned it wasn’t. I met other women like me, serving decades in prison. I also was introduced to an organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums that was fighting for people like me. FAMM believes the punishment should fit the crime, and the offender’s role — a fundamental principle that is rooted in American values.

For two decades, FAMM was a lone voice fighting to change the laws that stole decades of my life. But recently, there has been a sea change in attitudes toward prison and punishment. Many conservatives and liberals agree that holding low-level, drug offenders in prison for decades is counterproductive. Our nation spends almost$80 billion annually incarcerating people, many of whom are non-violent offenders who pose no threat to public safety.

Even “tough on crime” types, such as former president George W. Bush’s attorney general Michael Mukasey, are now telling Congress that reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws will make the public safer and save taxpayers money.

This view reflects the evidence gathered from many states’ experiences over the past 20 years. States that repealed or reformed their mandatory sentencing laws have seen their crime rates and their prison populations decrease. They are getting more safety for less money — a win-win for taxpayers.

At this very moment, Congress is considering bipartisan legislation that would make some modest changes to our federal mandatory minimum laws. Unfortunately, these bills would not prevent all non-violent offenders from receiving draconian sentences. Too many addicts and low-level offenders, like the ones I served with in prison, would not be helped. Congress should do more. The time is right. A FAMM poll conducted in 2014 reveals that an unprecedented 77% of the public favor ending mandatory minimum drug sentences.

My story has a somewhat happy ending. After grueling physical therapy, I was able to recover my ability to walk again and rebuild my life. I graduated from the Residential Drug Abuse Program in prison and earned highest honors from courses in psychology, social work and drug counseling. On Dec. 17, 2014, after 19 years behind bars, President Obama commuted my sentence.

I am currently pursuing a degree in biblical studies from Ames Christian University. But I will never be able to recover the nearly 20 years of my life spent in prison or the scars my daughter carries from growing up without her mother by her side. I don’t want to see that happen to others. It is past time for Congress to act boldly and repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Barbra Scrivner lives in Oregon with her daughter.