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July 29, 2011

"Crack cocaine: One woman's tale"

The title of this post is the headline of this first-person account of the impact of the new crack federal sentencing guidelines appearing in the Chicago Tribune (and forwarded to me by a helpful reader). This piece is authored by Stephanie Nodd, who is in prison in the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Florida, and here are excerpts:

Looking back, I know I did something wrong, but I am also sure that I did not need 30 years in prison to learn my lesson.  I am due a second chance, and I plan to make the best of it....

In 1988, just after my 20th birthday, I met a man named John who promised me cash if I helped him set up his new business.  His business was selling crack cocaine. I helped him for a little over a month in return for money I used to pay bills and buy groceries.  After about six weeks, I cut off all ties with John and moved myself and my kids to Boston to start a new life.

We were living in Boston when I was indicted on drug charges in Alabama.  I returned to take responsibility for my mistake.  I prayed I would not have to serve any time because of my clean record and limited involvement.  I could not have been more wrong....

I could not give the prosecutors any information because I did not know anyone.... Meanwhile, John cooperated against everyone, including me. I was eventually charged as a manager in the drug conspiracy and found guilty at trial.  Even though I did not have a criminal record, I was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.  The year was 1990. George H.W. Bush was president, and no one knew what email was.  I was 23 years old.

I have spent the last two decades behind bars.  Whenever new corrections officers ask me what my sentence is and I tell them 30 years, their first question is always the same: "Who did you kill?"

Earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce penalties for crack cocaine crimes.  On June 30, the commission voted to apply the new reforms to people serving the long prison sentences required by the old law.  Some people, including some members of Congress, are against retroactivity because they think it will give dangerous criminals a break.  As someone who has already served 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent crack offense, I think it's important for the public to get a different perspective.

The truth is that many people are serving sentences that are far longer than I believe is necessary.  I have met women whose husbands, after getting caught selling drugs, turned around and cooperated against their wives in exchange for shorter sentences.  Some of these women had little or no involvement in the drug offense for which they are serving decades in federal prison....

I have tried to stay positive and make the best of a bad situation.  I received my GED, completed college courses and earned other licenses that will allow me to compete for a job when I am finally released.  Thanks to the U.S. Sentencing Commission's vote, I could be released by the end of this year.  I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I am not the same woman who kissed her babies goodbye 21 years ago, but I can't wait to be reunited with my children and to meet my new grandchildren.

July 29, 2011 at 12:53 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"I received my GED, completed college courses and earned other licenses that will allow me to compete for a job when I am finally released."

Sadly, due to the nature of the beast, this is unlikely. The federal felony conviction will be held over her for the rest of her life. It will become an effective civil death penalty. Ms. Nodd joins the ranks of countless first time non-violent offenders who suffer the collateral damages of a federal felony conviction.

Admittedly, this is the convicted person's story and the full transcript of the proceedings was not presented. However, you do not have to look far to find many stories telling the same tale; overzealous federal prosecutor casts the wide net of "conspiracy" and drags anyone even remotely implicated into the morass. The "full weight" of the federal government is then applied, co-defendants are offered "deals" to implicate others and few have the means to fight it. End result, convictions all around and the prosecutor adds another feather to his cap.

The actions of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, while helpful, are not nearly enough. Until Congress passes legislation such as Congressman Steve Cohen's "Fresh start Act" allowing first offenders to petition the courts for expunction of their records, their employment prospects are dim. After 21 years is it too much to ask that her debt be marked pain in full and that she be given a real chance to succeed.

Posted by: Thomas | Jul 29, 2011 10:58:04 AM

"Who did you kill?" is the telling question here. 30 year sentences for first time non-violent offenders combined with no possibility of parole in the Federal system spelled doom for entirely too many people. With our overcrowded prisons and looming financial debt, plus the US having more people incarcerated than most countries---it is time for a review of prisoners and their sentences.

Posted by: folly | Jul 29, 2011 12:25:01 PM

Completely one-sided, self-serving stories should be evaluated as such.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 29, 2011 12:25:01 PM

maybe so bill. BUT when you have 100,000 people telling the same story....and nobody saying hey i was convicted of the criminal stupidty of trusting a friend or neighbor and got off with a warning....well

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 29, 2011 12:33:12 PM

The new question is not "Who did you kill?;" rather, the question is "How many cp images did you download?"

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jul 29, 2011 12:51:25 PM

I am not going to suggest that a 30 year sentence was reasonable (eve though I don't know all the facts), but looking at the case on Pacer, this was not a 10 gram hand to hand case or even a crack house case. She was held responsible for 8000 grams of crack. That is an unheard amount. Clearly this conspiracy was a little bigger than she is making it out to be. She would still get a guidline sentence of 188 months to 235 months (assuming no crim. history and no enhancements) under the FSA crack guidlines.

Posted by: lawdevil | Jul 29, 2011 2:31:22 PM

re-reading the article, and also the affirmation of her sentence (with the 8000 grams "attributable" to her...)it is also important to note that she could not provide any assistance to the prosecutor (her quote "I didn't know anyone in FL")--Without her being able to offer assistance, and thus be rewarded with a downward sentencing recommendation, and all others involved all turning against her to get their OWN sentences reduced for cooperation (and who knows WHAT these people would say---when their own butts are on the line)--without complete innocence she was stuck with a trial--and, unfairly, judges seem to give harsher sentences to those 5% who go to trial and are found guilty.

Posted by: folly | Jul 29, 2011 3:26:59 PM

rodsmith --

I trust friends and neighbors all the time, and not once has this gotten me involved with crack (or anything else illegal).

As I said once before here, it's real easy to avoid the federal sentencing "leviathon": Don't steal stuff, stay away from drugs, curb your temper, take no sexual interest in four year-old's, don't swindle people, forget about making a fast buck, and don't lie to the cops.

It also helps, although it's not absolutely mandatory, if you remember to act so your kids will be proud of you, to be thankful for all the things we have in this country, and to be grateful about what you have rather than resentful about what you lack.

These ways of acting are really, really easy to do, and people who do them have a risk of winding up in federal prison that's asymptotic to zero.

People who wind up in prison are there because of the choices they make. And the first step to making better choices is to look in the mirror than than blaming everyone else.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 29, 2011 3:54:44 PM

"Completely one-sided, self-serving stories should be evaluated as such."

Generally sensible advice, in court and out.

Though it's hard to imagine that the prosecution here took that advice when they decided to rely on John as the principal witness against Ms. Nodd, putting him on the stand and effectively endorsing his story that it was really Ms. Nodd that ran the show. U.S. v. Beasley, 2 F.3d 1551 (1993).

Posted by: SJS | Jul 29, 2011 4:04:01 PM

Hey Bill,

There you go boasting about not being in prison again.

And rodsmith's comment illustrates what is really wrong with this country; the failure of individuals to accept responsibility for poor choices and others to enable those poor choices by eliminating consequences.

A heart attack at 35? Blame McDonalds, not your love for french fries.
Pregnant during college? Have an abortion rather than being "tethered" by a child.
Sell drugs? Eh, I was just a small time player (and admirable because I did it to feed my kids!)and the REAL criminal went informant on me.

All choices have consequences. Some are good while others are bad. Some have a minor impact. Others are life altering. She made one that was both bad and life altering. Society does not owe her an escape hatch from that choice.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 29, 2011 6:34:07 PM

TarlsQtr --

"There you go boasting about not being in prison again."

I never even got detention.

OK, well, I did get detention. I knew those spitballs were a bad idea. Especially if I got caught.

Too bad I didn't have some of the defense counsel who post here. I could have used the "too many twinkies at lunch" defense.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 29, 2011 6:56:31 PM

30 years......for a first time offender? Idiocy. She didn't murder anyone. She hooked up with the wrong guy. She should be punished. 30 years? Our system is broken beyond repair. It makes me sick.

Posted by: rick | Jul 29, 2011 7:03:59 PM

Rick stated: "30 years......for a first time offender? Idiocy."

You see, now we have a language problem. "First time offender?" Really? How do you know that? My guess is that she "offended" hundreds of times, even if we believe every word of her story (I do not). This was the first time she was caught and CONVICTED, which is a completely different topic.

Rick stated: "She didn't murder anyone."

Perhaps not "murder" in the legal sense, but I am sure she helped a lot of souls commit suicide with that poison.

Rick stated: "She hooked up with the wrong guy."

Thanks for making my point from the previous post. I know a lot of woman who have "hooked up with the wrong guy." In none of those instances did it result in them selling crack cocaine.

BTW, the most overlooked and important sentence of her entire sob story is the first one, "Looking back, I know I did something wrong,..." You know, because the fact that selling crack is wrong can only be ascertained from the wisdom that comes with retrospection.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 29, 2011 8:41:17 PM

Hey Bill. I once had to put my head down in kindergarten. It was not, however, caused by my choice to knock down the wall made of cardboard bricks that the girls created and I wanted. It was the corrupt "system." Rule #1:It is ALWAYS the system.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 29, 2011 8:48:31 PM

But 30 years? Idiocy And I am a frigging federal prosecutor. How does that make any sense? I cannot get that sentence for a serious but unsuccessful interstate murder for hire scheme. I am not saying she shouldn't be punished....but 30 years? Seriously?

Posted by: rick | Jul 29, 2011 9:41:20 PM

While I think 30 years is excessive for any drug offense, we're only seeing her side of the story here. She could be some dupe or the head of a million dollar cartel, she has no reason to tell the truth and no repercussions for lying.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Jul 29, 2011 11:10:44 PM

I might be good with a 30 year sentence for the head of an international cartel. I would, however, expect my colleages in the D. of Mass. to have actually proven that fact, before they sentenced her on that basis. I am not aware that they did that. Surmise alone doesn't cut it for me. The sentence is too damn long.

Posted by: rick | Jul 29, 2011 11:44:02 PM

To Bill, who says it is "real easy to avoid the Federal Sentencing Leviathon"---it's NOT. I just went through a three week Federal Trial with a potential 20 year sentence. My crimes? I bought a boat, I lent my sister money, and my husband removed his name from our joint stock account. I would NEVER get involved in any criminal activity---but that does not stop a prosecutor, who has COMPLETE discretion in who he charges to go after me, even on the most circumstancial evidence.
Trial opens you up to being convicted, possibly wrongfully. As the world condemns the jury on the Casey Anthony trial for finding innocence, how often do things get twisted at trial to find guilt? After actually being the accused,
I would say A LOT. Thankfully, I was acquitted of all charges, but ours is a country where a even mundane transactions with money can lead to Federal Charges with potentially stiff sentences and the loss of Everything you have ever worked for (through forfeiture laws---Additional punishment)

Posted by: folly | Jul 30, 2011 9:11:48 AM

Folly,

A couple of points.

First, you were acquitted, correct? Then what is your point? You did not fall victim to the "Federal Sentencing Leviathon." The system worked. Maybe not perfectly (assuming your version of events is complete), but it worked.

Two, you seem to be complaining that the prosecutor is the one with discretion to prosecute. Who exactly should have that discretion? The transcriptionist?

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 9:33:06 AM

Rick,

I am not saying that 30 years is the sentence I would deliver. What I am saying is that her actions are responsible for that sentence, not some corrupt system. If we as a society want to reduce the sentence, fine. We just do not owe it to her nor should she be seen as some type of "victim." She probably committed 100+ felonies in those six weeks. She is a criminal, not a victim. I find her effort to portray herself as one to be a sign that she still has the same mentality she entered prison with.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 9:40:57 AM

Thomas stated: "The actions of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, while helpful, are not nearly enough. Until Congress passes legislation such as Congressman Steve Cohen's "Fresh start Act" allowing first offenders to petition the courts for expunction of their records, their employment prospects are dim. After 21 years is it too much to ask that her debt be marked pain in full and that she be given a real chance to succeed."

I have a couple of problems with this. First, it is another attempt to minimize responsibility and consequences for a person's actions. There is a notion in Christianity of two types of punishment, Divine and temporal. The Divine type equals hell. Do the right things (repent, etc.)and the Deity will forgo that punishment. However, that does not mean you are free of the EARTHLY consequences of your behavior.

The same is true of our legal system. It metes out punishment (prison) but there are still secondary consequences to a person's crime. One of these is the stigma of being a felon. This is another consequence of the criminal's actions, not the result of something wrong with the system.

And I assume the Fresh Start Act results in the felons not having to divulge their crimes on job applications (in other words, lie)? This violates the rights of two groups of people. First, employers who should be able to make an educated decision regarding who they hire. The second group is the competing applicants who lived a clean life, went to school, and were diligent workers. They are now at a disadvantage.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 10:03:42 AM

My point is that comments here seem to indicate that Everyone who faces a Federal sentence (and charges) made choices that led to the punishment. I certainly did not find that to be true, I did NOT make criminal choices, and the RISK of trial, even though I knew I was innocent COULD have led to facing the sentencing guidelines. Facing a possible high sentence upon possible wrongful conviction sure "wakes you up has you smell the coffee" of some of the incredibly harsh sentences you can face. You look at the Federal Guidelines, and think "How could a sentence like this even be possible?" (especially for my charged conduct)
IF the conviction had happened, I would just have been another one of those "self serving criminals" crying about my sentence, I suppose.
RE: Prosecutors-- It's easy for you to say "the system worked"---but to me the system DID NOT work, because the buck should have stopped HERE, with the prosecutor and the Grand Jury--his rubber stamp.
I am just one person who faced the Federal System of Justice--and a rarity, because 95% of those charged plead guilty---in my view BECAUSE of the possible sentences they faced, sentences like the one given to this woman.

Posted by: folly | Jul 30, 2011 10:38:24 AM


"And I assume the Fresh Start Act results in the felons not having to divulge their crimes on job applications (in other words, lie)? This violates the rights of two groups of people. First, employers who should be able to make an educated decision regarding who they hire. The second group is the competing applicants who lived a clean life, went to school, and were diligent workers. They are now at a disadvantage."

You would be correct in assuming that the ex-offender would not have to divulge their history on a job application. To characterize it as a "lie" I think is a matter of opinion.

Of course, it would help if you had actually read the full text of H.R.2449 before commenting. A key component is, and I quote from the text of the bill, "An order granting expungement under this subchapter shall restore the individual concerned, in the contemplation of the law, to the status such individual occupied before the arrest or institution of criminal proceedings for the nonviolent offense that was the subject of the expungement."

The text of the bill continues, " An individual whose petition under this subchapter is granted shall not be required to divulge information pertaining to the nonviolent offense with regard to which expungement is sought, nor shall such individual be held under any provision of law guilty of perjury, false answering, or making a false statement by reason of the failure of the individual to recite or acknowledge such arrest or institution of criminal proceedings, or results thereof, in response to an inquiry made of the individual for any purpose. The fact that such individual has been convicted of the nonviolent offense concerned shall not operate as a disqualification of such individual to pursue or engage in any lawful activity, occupation, or profession."

In other words, in the eyes of the "law", in which you place so much faith, the ex-offender is restored to their pre-offense status then the presumption, under the "law" is that the crime never occurred.

In what way is any other applicant for a job "disadvantaged "? If they are the most qualified, they get the job. They are only competing against other qualified parties i.e. if you can type, you can type. The fact of a previous conviction has nothing to do with "qualifications". This legislation only gives the ex-offender, who is disadvantaged, a level playing field. Or do you prefer to keep someone who is more than able to support himself or herself in poverty and on the taxpayer funded welfare rolls?

True story, a young woman of my acquaintance had non-violent federal felony conviction in 2002, nine years ago. She paid her full debt as decreed by the court and has since lived an exemplary life. This young woman continued her education, has recently received her degree, and is now a Registered Nurse. She has applied for employment in the hospital in her area and left a pre-employment interview with positive indications that an offer of employment would be forthcoming. She was subsequently notified by the HR department of the hospital that, despite her qualifications and the acute shortage of nursing staff, she would not be offered a position solely because of her prior conviction. Who is the disadvantaged party here? The hospital needs nurses, the patients need nurses and a young woman who has more than proved that she is reformed needs a job.

H.R.2449 does not grant anything other than an opportunity first time non-violent offenders to petition the original sentencing court for consideration. There is no guarantee that the petition for consideration will be granted nor if granted that the end result will be expunction of their record without the benefit of legislation of this type. I ask, how can ex-offenders like the young woman described above rise above their mistakes and become productive members of society? Or are you suggesting that while we have them down we just keep kicking them?

Posted by: Thomas | Jul 30, 2011 11:01:29 AM

Saturday's quiz: Who said the following -- "Bearing the discomfiture and cost of a prosecution for crime even by an innocent person is one of the painful obligations of citizenship."

A) Attila the Hun
B) Glenn Beck
C) TarlsQtr
D) Newt Gingrich
E) Alberto Gonzales
F) Darth Vader

Everyone have the answer?

OK (drumroll)............it was (G) Felix Frankfurter, writing without dissent in Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S. 323 (1940).

The system of course presupposes some acquittals. Were it otherwise, merely the handing down of the indictment would suffice for sending the defendant to jail.

I will repeat two things. First, it's really hard to get into federal prison; and second, completely one-sided, self-serving stories should be evaluated as such.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 30, 2011 11:17:03 AM

Folly stated: "My point is that comments here seem to indicate that Everyone who faces a Federal sentence (and charges) made choices that led to the punishment."

I am not sure I have seen anyone make that statement. I personally have stated that the chance of being an innocent convicted and thrown into prison without any personal culpability is like being hit by lightning, twice. I stand by that.

Folly stated: "I did NOT make criminal choices,"

Perhaps. I resist making comments about your personal situation because although I have no reason to believe that you are not giving us the complete picture, I have no reason to believe you are either. We tend to see ourselves in a manner that is different than reality. Like my previous example (given to me by one of my former inmate students) of a guy getting into his buddy's Escalade knowing he never had a job to afford such a vehicle and then claiming innocence after a bag of dope was found under his seat. I have little sympathy for people who live that close to the line of criminal activity and then cry foul when another perceives their toe is over it. I am not saying this is true in your case but it is often the case in my experience of those who claim wrongful conviction or arrest.

Folly stated: "RE: Prosecutors-- It's easy for you to say "the system worked"---but to me the system DID NOT work, because the buck should have stopped HERE, with the prosecutor and the Grand Jury--his rubber stamp."

You are calling for a system where an innocent will never be charged. There has never been, is not now, and never will be such a system.

Folly stated: "I am just one person who faced the Federal System of Justice--and a rarity, because 95% of those charged plead guilty---in my view BECAUSE of the possible sentences they faced, sentences like the one given to this woman."

And my view is that 95% plead guilty because they are, well, guilty.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 11:20:40 AM

I don't mind systems where innocents can be charged, I just want the prosecutor to be punished for that choice (regardless of whether they pursued the case in good faith or not) when it turns out they were wrong. With enormous power should come enormous responsibility, and that is where I believe what we have now breaks down. At every level that responsibility is shirked, basically without consequence.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 30, 2011 11:58:05 AM

no offense bill but my problem with the sentece was HOW the state GOT IT! they basicaly got a conviction using a bunch of lieing aholes who sold her down the river to get thier own sweet deal! Like jailhouse snitches... any conviction using lieramony instead of EVIDENCE or actual UNVOLVED WITNESS testimony is a joke!

i NEVER said she shouldn't be punished if she IN FACT comitted the crime! Just that the state failed to prove she really proved one!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 30, 2011 1:05:20 PM

it doesn't seem like prosectuors or judges ask the first question i would when presented with testimony about crimes!

"that's nice that your telling me this! BUT i have one question HOW DO YOU KNOW?" If you were there to see or hear this crime happeing GUESS WHAT YOUR JUST AS DAMN GUILITY!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 30, 2011 1:07:09 PM

"First, it's really hard to get into federal prison"

Absolute BS

"and second, completely one-sided, self-serving stories should be evaluated as such"

Exactly and several folks said that. However, the "evaluation often shows the story teller to be right.

Posted by: anon | Jul 30, 2011 1:58:16 PM

"First time offender?" Really? How do you know that? My guess is that she "offended" hundreds of times"

Really??? On what facts do you base that guess? My "guess" is that you are purely speculationg based on that fact that you are another who does not really believe in punishment. What you want is retribution. Sounds like you not only want to punish her for what she did,you also want to punish her for what you "think" she "may" have done.

Posted by: anon | Jul 30, 2011 2:09:02 PM

Soronel --

No one is infallible. The idea of punishing a prosecutor (or anyone) for making an error, no matter how much his judgment was undertaken in good faith and how much evidence supported it at the time, is wildly unfair. It would also mean that no one would become a prosecutor, since no one can possibly have an error-free career, and no one expects to.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 30, 2011 2:19:02 PM

Bill,

People don't have a right to be prosecutors. It should not be a desirable position to take. I would say the same for pretty much all government employment, if your mistake while performing an official function harms a citizen you should be punished.

Similar to the recent discussion on the VC about sports penalties, I would say that penalties for government employee mistakes (let alone misconduct) should be far more severe than the actions sought to be dissuaded.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 30, 2011 2:29:15 PM

anon--

You say it's "absolute BS" that it's hard to get into federal prison.

You know not whereof you speak. I was an AUSA for 18 years in the EDVA, under administrations of both parties. I was also Counselor to the Administrator of the DEA. And of course, unlike you, I use my real name here so people can check out my experience.

I am perfectly willing to state under oath that it's hard to get into federal prison, based on my roughly two decades of first-hand knowledge.

To give evidence to support your contrary view, please give your name, professional background, and citations to some of the cases you have litigated. If you're unwilling to do that, why do you think anyone should take seriously your seat-of-the-pants opinion, tossed out, as it is, with absolutely no documentation and total anonymity?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 30, 2011 2:33:26 PM

TarlsQtr:

I think you either greatly overestimate the odds of being struck by lightning or greatly understimate the likelihood of being wrongly convicted. Just to explain why:

Each year, roughly 400 people in this country are struck by lightning. Once.

I wouldn't be surprised if this were within an order of magnitude of the actual number that are wrongly convicted each year (regardless of your curious "without any personal culpability" qualifier). But I would be greatly surprised if the number were much lower than 400 out of the many hundreds of thousands of people newly imprisoned each year. So perhaps the odds are somewhat comparable to being struck by lightning once (though I don't believe they are at all equivalent).

However, assuming everyone survives their first strike, and assuming that everyone has an equal chance of being hit, the odds of being struck by lightning twice in a lifetime are about 1/100,000,000 (1/10,000 squared). Given a population of 300,000,000, that means that if everyone had an equal chance of being struck, then over the span of a lifetime, some three generations, only 3 people will be struck twice by lightning. One per generation.

That more than this number have apparently been struck multiple - even several - times stems from people not having an equal chance of being struck (e.g., golfers and hikers versus, say, supermax inmates). Even if you assume that a person is first struck because, for some recreational or occupational reason, they are say 10 times more likely than the average person to be struck, then the odds of being hit twice are still 1/10,000,000 - or 10 people per generation.

To equate these odds to those of wrongful convictions is to say that just 1 person every 2 to 3 years is wrongfully convicted in this country. An error rate of 0.00001%. That, I think, is demonstrably not the case. Hard numbers are of course hard to come by, but DNA exonerations are surely just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm sure we could nit and quibble over whether the odds are that of being struck once by lightning. But not twice. I don't think you can stand by that.

Posted by: SJS | Jul 30, 2011 3:29:00 PM

I stated: "First time offender?" Really? How do you know that? My guess is that she "offended" hundreds of times."

Anon replied: "Really??? On what facts do you base that guess? My "guess" is that you are purely speculationg based on that fact that you are another who does not really believe in punishment. What you want is retribution. Sounds like you not only want to punish her for what she did,you also want to punish her for what you "think" she "may" have done."

Try reading her letter, Anon. She stated, "His business was selling crack cocaine. I helped him for a little over a month in return for money I used to pay bills and buy groceries."

Now, to my knowledge, it does not take "a little over a month" (the time she admits working for him) to sell a single crack rock, which is what she would have been doing if she really was a small time player like she claims. Even a babe in the woods knows she would have sold more, much more, and you are not that naive. And if she was a "manager", then she really does not have a complaint anyway.

As to your diatribe about me wanting retribution:
retribution-Something justly deserved; recompense. http://www.answers.com/topic/retribution

I am guilty as charged.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 3:58:51 PM

SJS,

Thanks for all of the hard work you put into that post but it was not really meant to be taken that literally. Let's just say that it is really, really, really, really, really difficult.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 4:01:33 PM

On the question whether it's hard to get into federal prison: Let's do a little statistical research rather than just sling around opinions!

The population of the USA is about 312,000,000. The population of all federal prisons is 217,444 (let's just round up to 218,000 to make the math easier).

If I'm doing my long division correctly, that means the probability of winding up in federal prison AT RANDOM is 143 one-thousandths of one percent. Put differently, your chances of NOT being in federal prison are 99.857%. Of course if you're into selling meth or sending around pictures of first graders being sexually tortured, etc., then your chances are going to go up, although unfortunately not as much as they should.

I repeat: It's really hard to get there. Period.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 30, 2011 4:24:27 PM

TarlsQtr:

You're quite welcome. ;) I've seen you say it before, and while I figured it was, well, figurative, I was curious to see to what degree it overstated the odds.

The underlying motivation was that you (and others here) seem to have the view that playing by the rules, keeping your nose clean, and staying away from the wrong crowd is all that's necessary to virtually ensure that you're never sucked into the system. Good advice, for sure. My concern is whether that mindset makes it all too easy to discount the problem of wrongful (nevermind wrongheaded) convictions - which is what I saw in your expression of the odds, however exaggerated - to the detriment of addressing that problem, systemically and otherwise.

Getting into prison is hard, as you and Bill say, but unfortunately sometimes it's not a question of effort at all.

Posted by: SJS | Jul 30, 2011 5:11:44 PM

SJS,

I believe that a lot of the disagreement both "sides" have is the result of such a different worldview that words do not even have the same meaning. For instance, a previous poster called her a "first time offender." I find his definition ridiculous (just as he probably found mine), as she almost definitely sold more than one crack rock.

Another is our definition of "innocent." I am guessing that you would find a guy put in prison for being the passenger in his buddy's expensive SUV with crack stuffed under the seat "innocent." I say that a reasonable person knows that someone who never held a job could not own such a vehicle, and is not "innocent." During my 10 years teaching in the state corrections system, EVERY one of my innocence claiming students had a similar story. They were the passenger in that SUV. They were just at the crack house at the time of the raid to pick up a sister. They were just along for the ride on the drive by and it was the other guy that fired. Even if I buy their stories, that is far from "innocent", IMO.

When you remove these stories, I do feel the problem is indeed miniscule. I do not hear many stories of a guy watching Little House on the Prairie with his family being incorrectly dragged off the couch and thrown into Federal prison.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 30, 2011 5:49:40 PM

TarlsQtr:

"I believe that a lot of the disagreement both 'sides' have is the result of such a different worldview that words do not even have the same meaning."

Agreed that the worldviews can be insurmountably different. As pertinent here, many of them are centered around seemingly incompatible theories of punishment, and some perhaps boiling down to simply whether to view things as black and white or in shades of gray.

"For instance, a previous poster called her a 'first time offender.' I find his definition ridiculous (just as he probably found mine), as she almost definitely sold more than one crack rock."

At one level, it's just semantics. But beyond that, it's the context, sometimes unstated, that gives meaning. One person comes at the question with whether this so-called "first-time offender" should be punished for just the instant offense or instead for all likely or known related criminal behavior, another asks whether, regardless of what the system may or may not know or surmise about a person, it's appropriate to levy a certain sentence when someone has no priors. In other words, you use it as offender in a moral/legal blameworthiness sense, another uses it synonymously with convict.

"I am guessing that you would find a guy put in prison for being the passenger in his buddy's expensive SUV with crack stuffed under the seat 'innocent.'"

You would be guessing right. Provided he didn't know there was crack under the seat at the time. I would also call him foolish. He may know, or should at least suspect, that his buddy is a crack dealer, and he would be wise to stay well away. But if he gets in the car and does not know that there is crack stuffed under the seat, then you betcha, he's innocent. He should have made other choices, and ideally the law may even discourage some poor but legal choices, but I don't see the role of the law as punishing such choices.

Perhaps we're having a similar semantics issue. I am using innocent in a technical, legal sense - did the person commit a crime, or not. You seem to use it more broadly, in a blameworthiness sense. For purposes of discussing what the law should do, I prefer the former usage. I don't want the law going beyond what the legislature prescribes to determine who should be held to account, or to what extent. If the law oversteps its bounds as I see them, I have a problem with that.

"During my 10 years teaching in the state corrections system, EVERY one of my innocence claiming students had a similar story. They were the passenger in that SUV. They were just at the crack house at the time of the raid to pick up a sister. They were just along for the ride on the drive by and it was the other guy that fired. Even if I buy their stories, that is far from 'innocent', IMO."

I don't doubt you got a lot of these stories. And I don't doubt that many of them were false. Nor do I doubt that many were true, but minimized their culpability. But, do you think that your lengthy and close experience with these folks, while giving you a particularly informed perspective, might also to some extent distort your perspective? (not that everyone doesn't have bias from experience) After being lied to every day for so long, it's got to be hard not to see everything as a lie.

"When you remove these stories, I do feel the problem is indeed miniscule."

What is miniscule to one is significant to another. Regardless of how miniscule it is, if there are things we can do to mitigate it, then we should. Calling it miniscule or insignificant seems to suggest it's not worth anyone's attention, though maybe you feel differently.

Posted by: SJS | Jul 30, 2011 6:41:36 PM


SJS --

Great post about lightning. Still, when it starts to thunder, I think I'm staying inside.

As TarlsQtr has noted, no system on earth is 100% accurate. It paints a distorted picture to dwell on the very, very small number of erroneous convictions while ignoring the fact that the huge mass of them are correct. It also elides that fact that there are erroneous acquittals, which are also a miscarriage of justice. And there are the thousands of cases that don' get prosecuted at all, not because the suspect is guiltless, but because the resources simply aren't there.

We can bring the number of erroneous convictions to zero by simply abolishing the criminal justice system. No one proposes that because it would be nuts. It doesn't do a perfect job but it does quite a good one. The proof is in the pudding: As incarceration has increased, the crime rate has fallen to levels not seen in more than 50 years. That is an enormous public policy success, and means that thousands and thousands of people have been saved the suffering of being crime victims.

There are those ready to toss that away so that your basic thug has a better chance of beating the rap. I will not be among them.

P.S. Just to be clear, I appreciate the thoughtful and generally balanced approach you take.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 30, 2011 6:59:26 PM

But at the end of the day, 30 years? That's idiotic. I can not get that for a 2nd degree murder.
Now I know...this is mostly a product of congressional idiocy. But idiocy is idiocy....30 years? Too damn long.

Posted by: rick | Jul 30, 2011 7:44:21 PM

Hi Bill,

Thanks for the comment.

At my old job, my boss always liked to dwell on the company's successes. It always surprised him how quickly and insistently I wanted to shift focus to how we could do better. I think the same is true here. I want to focus on how we can improve, not to diminish or obscure our successes, but simply because we can and should do better. However, like in business, I think both perspectives can complement each other well.

Of course, I don't advocate abolishing courts or prisons, nor do I advocate doing everything conceivably possible to minimize the error rate - the law of diminishing returns and all. But I think there is much more we can do before we reach that point.

It's time to BBQ, so perhaps I'll leave your comments about erroneous acquittals and (costs and benefits of) diminished crime rates for another day. May the lightning stay away from both of us. :)

SJS

Posted by: SJS | Jul 30, 2011 7:51:41 PM

And so we come back to the question, that arises from the first line---was a Thirty Year Sentence necessary or reasonable for this first time non-violent offender? If sentencing policy is for punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence or society's other goals---was this person, and others, similarly situated, properly sentenced for their crime if we accept as true her statements (one month of participation, then cutting off ties BUT also accept as true, or possibly true, given that acknowledged criminals (other drug dealers looking for lenient sentencing by serving up other) the amount of drugs sold? Thirty YEARS?

Posted by: folly | Jul 30, 2011 8:17:44 PM

Under 123D, lady would have gone home, with some supervision, been a taxpayer, left a bed open for a serial killer, now trolling our nation for victims with near absolute immunity from the lawyer.

The lawyer is in utter failure in the criminal law, with high false negatives, and false positives. Yet, there are 20 million crimes a year, devastating our economy and national progress. No progress is possible without the physical eradication of the hierarchy of the criminal cult enterprise. These 15,000 people should be arrested one day, so none tries to leave the country. Then there should be a fair one hour trial, within a few days. The sole evidence will be the reading of their appellate decisions and statutes. Then they should be executed upon the reading of the verdict of insurrection against the constitution, in the basement of the court.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 30, 2011 8:56:52 PM

Speaking of lightening, what are the odds that someone facing serious charges will commit perjury to get off the hook some? More likely than a lightening strike? Indeed, it would appear to be cruel and unusual punishment to sentence someone to 30 years based on such perjury. If it was unusual.

Posted by: Dude | Jul 30, 2011 9:10:33 PM

Lighting strikes in CA. California may curb use of unsupported jailhouse testimony

A bill passed by the state Legislature earlier this month would prohibit convictions based solely on the testimony of jailhouse informants, who often have something to gain by lying.

Posted by: Fred | Jul 31, 2011 6:54:15 PM

Bill,

'You know not whereof you speak. I was an AUSA for 18 years in the EDVA, under administrations of both parties. I was also Counselor to the Administrator of the DEA. And of course, unlike you, I use my real name here so people can check out my experience.'

Good for you but since this site is primarily for voicing opinions, whether based on facts or otherwise, opinions are still like assholes and everyone has one but in some cases some tend to be bigger than others. More power to you.

Posted by: james | Aug 1, 2011 8:16:15 PM

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