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Michigan Considers Reform of Mandatory Minimums


September-October 1997

The Michigan legislature is considering reform of the state's "650 lifer" law, which mandates that anyone caught with over 650 grams of cocaine or heroin receives a mandatory life sentence (Dennis Cauchon, "Michigan revisits tough drug law," USA Today, September 9, 1997, p. 6A).

Critcs of the law contend that too many first time drug offenders are being locked up for life. Eighty-six percent of those convicted under the "650-lifer" law have never been to prison before. John O'Hair, the prosecutor for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, said, "When the law was originally passed, it was hoped we would get the kingpins and have a real impact on drug activity. The reality is we didn't stop it at all. We probably missed a greater percentage of those who are the kingpins."

Elizabeth Jacobs, a defense lawyer who heads Attorneys Against Excessive Mandatory Minimums said, "It has not helped solve the drug problem nor is it cost-effective ... Our 20-year experiment is an enormous mistake." Judge Terrance K. Boyle, who has handled "650 lifer" cases, said, "I regard the penalties as unjust without any question ... I really think the whole system makes a mistake when it removes discretion ... These intensively harsh penalties corrupt the system and force judges to violate their own oath" (Associated Press, "Quotes on Drug Lifer Law," September 7, 1997).

State Senator William Van Regenmorter (R), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who supported the original law, has sponsored amendments to S.B 280 and S.B. 281 to reform the state's mandatory minimums. Under Van Regenmorter's proposal, those convicted for the first time who "cooperated with law enforcement authorities" in providing information to track drug rings or lead to kingpins could receive less than life imprisonment, but would serve at least 15 years. And those already serving life could be eligible for parole after 15 years if theirs was a first conviction, and if the prosecutor and judge in their case approve.

JeDonna Young is serving a life sentence. Young was 24 years old, a single mother, and did not have a criminal record at the time of her arrest in October 1978. While driving with her boyfriend, she was pulled over by Detroit police who found a bag of heroin, and 33 cellophane packets filled with heroin. Despite her claim that the heroin belonged to her boyfriend, which the boyfriend confirmed, Young was convicted under the "650 lifer" law. Nineteen years later, Young is still behind bars. She has earned a bachelor's degree and is a certified paralegal for prison legal services. In 1989, an appeals court rejected her plea, saying, "The ripple effect on society of such a large quantity of heroin is staggering to contemplate." In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Michigan law by a 5-4 vote (Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991)). (Sharon Cohen, "One Short Ride Turns Into a Lifetime for Woman in Michigan Prison," Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1997; Sharon Cohen, "In for life," Sunday Advocate (Baton Rouge), September 7, 1997, p. 10B).

Laura Sager of Michigan Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told NewsBriefs that an amendement sponsored by Rep. Ted Wallace (D-Detroit) repealing the "650 lifer" law passed the House Judiciary Committee, and that the Van Regenmorter amendment passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. FAMM sponsored a legislative walk-in on October 9 in Lansing that drew more than 200 citizens, all of whom met with their legislators.

Michigan Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) - Laura Sager, (517) 482-4982.

Michigan Sen. William Van Regenmorter - P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, MI 48909.