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Federal drug-sentencing policy draws fire

Foes of mandatory minimum sentences appeal to Bennett

SHARE Federal drug-sentencing policy draws fire

For Burton and Carol Stringfellow, eliminating federal mandatory minimum prison sentences holds little gain.

Their son, Cory, 30, is in his sixth year of a 16-year prison sentence for his involvement in distributing 5,100 hits of LSD. The Stringfellows, who coordinate the Utah Chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, have little hope that anything will change that. However, they say there is more to their plight than their son's fate.

"We're working for thousands upon thousands of families" of individuals facing minimum mandatory sentences throughout the country, Burton Stringfellow said. "We've been working hard with nothing to show for it, but I think we're on the threshold of the road to immeasurable success."

Wednesday, the Stringfellows may have gotten a little bit closer to their goals.

For the first time since Congress legislated minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines more than a decade ago, Sen. Bob Bennett met with about a dozen group members and supporters, including Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, to discuss objections to federal drug sentencing policy, which they believe is unsuccessful and unreasonably harsh.

On behalf of Utah families affected by the policy, the group's delegation asked Bennett to "support abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, the restoration of parole, and other needed reforms in the federal justice system," Burton Stringfellow said.

Bennett did not allow media to be present during the meeting, and he had to leave town on business almost immediately afterward. But following the meeting, group members in attendance said the senator expressed concern without taking a stand on the issue.

"He was sympathetic to our cause," said the University of Utah adjunct research associate professor of medicine. "It was a very favorable response."

Anderson, an attorney who, prior to being elected mayor, specialized in civil rights issues, said Bennett said he was against the federal government taking over some roles best handled by the states, but indicated that any action would have to begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Utah's other senator, Orrin Hatch, chairs the judiciary committee. "FAMM also wrote Senator Hatch for an interview. The senator acknowledged receiving the letters but did not address the request," Burton Stringfellow said.

Anderson pointed out that one of the problems with minimum mandatory sentences is that they force judges to sentence individuals "without regard to specific circumstances.

"Instead of taking a constructive approach to drug abuse addiction, we sentence people to many, many years" without taking into account the facts, he said.

A case discussed with Bennett was that of a 21-year-old man facing a 12-year mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense, said Suzanne Cunningham, a member of the group. Because he absconded, he faces an additional mandatory sentence.

"So bottom line, for a first-time drug offense he could be getting 21 years" without the possibility of parole, Cunningham said.

The system not only becomes unfair but also expensive because it costs more than $30,000 to house one inmate in a federal prison for one year, she added.

Instead, common drug offenses should be handled by the individual states, where in many cases, including Utah, first-time offenders are given the opportunity for rehabilitation through drug courts and other programs, the group argues.

U.S. Attorney Paul Warner said that while drug courts have proven successful with individual drug users, mandatory sentences target people "who are transporting large volumes of drugs and who run trafficking organizations purely for economic gain and criminal livelihood."

"For every drug addict who gets a minimum mandatory, there's a lot of people who are drug traffickers who are in it for the money," Warner said. "We're not rehabilitating a drug trafficker, we're punishing him.

"I'm not the great defender of minimum mandatories, because I think there are times when people get caught up in the web of a minimum mandatory and the result is unfortunate. But I also believe that if we're going to find out whether they work, we have to be consistent and fair in their application," Warner said.

And if people disagree with the policy and want to change it, "there are mechanisms by which they can let their duly elected officials know."

Which is what the Stringfellows and their group of "less than 50" members in Utah are trying to do. "We instinctively realize we are in this cause not for ourselves and our son alone," Stringfellow told Bennett in a prepared statement. "We have an obligation, a calling if you will, to serve our fellow men, and this we will do with all our strength until the federal government's tragic sentencing policies are finally understood for what they are.

"We believe in punishment, but we do not believe that punishment needs to be destructive of the human spirit," Stringfellow added.

Utah law allows for minimum mandatory sentences only in some sex abuse cases, particularly those involving children.

E-MAIL: hans@desnews.com