What Federal Drug Offenders Are Saying About Congress Reforming Mandatory Minimums

Politicians are mulling changes to the law, but many prisoners are worried they'll slip through the cracks.

Oct 12 2015, 4:00pm

FCI Terre Haute in Indiana. Photo via Bureau of Prisons official website

Some federal inmates hoping for an early release from the bowels of the prison-industrial complex suffered a blow on Thursday when a sentencing reform bill introduced to the House of Representatives promised relatively little in the way of help for many non-violent federal drug offenders.

The Sentencing Reform Act largely mirrors a piece of legislation unveiled in the US Senate a week earlier. Among other things, it would retroactively reduce the mandatory-minimum sentence of life without parole for a third drug or violent offense to 25 years and the mandatory 20-year sentence for a second drug or violent offense to 15 years. The bill narrowly defines which prior drug offenses can trigger mandatory-minimum sentences, and would make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, freeing an estimated 6,500 crack offenders. It would also reduce the mandatory minimums for some gun offenses and allow several other categories of offenders to have a judge determine whether they should be free.

The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support, and with President Obama at the helm, the sense inside the federal prison system is that something is a virtual lock to pass once the House and Senate bills are reconciled. But there's frustration at the scope of the proposed reforms, which—as you might expect—many inmates feel don't go nearly far enough.

"This is bullshit," 31-year-old inmate Joshua Yancy told VICE after reading key portions of the Sentencing Reform Act. "They want to help a few thousands lifers, a bunch of crack dealers, some guys with 20 years and some gun offenders, but they don't want to do anything for anyone else?"

Serving ten years for a conspiracy involving OxyCodone, Yancy spoke to VICE on Thursday night inside the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"What about guys like me? I was facing 63 to 78 months for the conspiracy charge that I was involved in, but because I had a prior conviction that was just a simple fistfight in the county jail, they turned me into some career offender and enhanced my sentence to 122 months," he said. "It still blows my mind that they could do this to me. All I'm asking for is to be able to earn a little extra good time. I mean, I work in UNICOR [the prison factory] for 69 cents an hour. Can't guys like me earn something like an extra ten days a month off our time for working for the government?"

Likewise, James Holt—a coworker of Yancy's serving 206 months for a first-time drug offense—fears that if enacted, the proposed reforms would reduce the sentence of a career offender serving 20 years to 15, but leave his own sentence untouched.

"Think about the logic of that," Holt insisted. "How can you have a bill that takes the sentence of someone who has a worse criminal history than mine, who sold more drugs than me, and help him by giving him less time than me, but leave my sentence the same? It makes no sense."

After his arrest for a nonviolent methamphetamine conspiracy, John Valentin Laprei learned that he was facing a statutory mandatory-minimum penalty of 20 years to life based on a prior drug conviction, and quickly agreed to a plea deal. As a result, he was sentenced to 252 months. Last year, however, following a decision by the US Sentencing Commission to reduce the sentences for certain drug offenses and apply those changes retroactively, Laprei filed a motion for a sentence reduction. He expected to receive 20 years, the mandatory-minimum sentence for someone with prior drug convictions. Instead, he was re-sentenced to 18 years and 10 months.

"When I found out that the judge went below the statutory minimum penalty, I wrote him a letter and thanked him," Laprei told VICE. "But looking at these bills, if either one of them passes, it seems pretty clear that because my judge re-sentenced me below 20 years, that I've got nothing coming."

Slipping through the cracks of proposed reforms is frustrating to prisoners even as they find hope in the ongoing national dialogue about mass incarceration.

"Reducing my sentence to 15 years would shoot me right out the door. I've already got that much time in," Laprei said.

The seemingly arbitrary nature of the proposed changes is especially glaring to Spencer Glenn Price, a career drug offender who was facing a mandatory 20-year sentence for methamphetamine based on the weight of drugs and his prior convictions.

"I was a drug dealer from California living in Montana and I was going in front of a judge that gives everyone the maximum penalty," Price told VICE. "I signed a plea deal in a hurry." After accepting responsibility for his criminal actions, Price was given 232 months imprisonment, or eight months below the 20-year mandatory minimum that Congress now wants to reduce to 15 years.

"So look at me now," he said inside the library of FCI Terre Haute. "I work in UNICOR, I program, I'm a model prisoner, but because my judge gave me eight months below the statutory range, I can't get my sentence reduced to 15 years. This is crazy.

"What the hell happened to the good-time bill that everyone in here was raving about?" Price wondered. "If Congress is really sincere about reducing the prison population and saving money, why can't Congress just pass that bill, or tack the good-time portion of that bill onto one of these two new bills? Now that would let a lot of people out."

The bill he's referring to is the SAFE Justice Act, a sweeping piece of legislation prison reform advocates see as a model for how to change things. Among other things, the bill would allow inmates who work in UNICOR and those who complete reform-based programs to earn up to 120 days a year off their sentence, a seemingly reasonable incentive for good behavior. (Currently, inmates can only earn up to 54 days a year off their sentences.)

Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:

Inmates want a comprehensive overhaul of the system, not a handful of changes that make for flashy headlines.

"I don't get how a dude who's doing a mandatory-minimum ten-year sentence can't get his sentence reduced to five years, but a guy doing 20 years can get his reduced to 15 years," said federal inmate Augustine Abascal. "And what about the dudes who are doing mandatory 30-year sentences? If life sentences are going to go down to 25 years, how are they [Congress] just gonna leave the guys with 30 years doing more time than the guys who had life?

"This is shit is all fucked up, homie." he added.

With a handful of bills that would begin to correct Reagan-era mandatory-minimum sentencing laws percolating on Capitol Hill, it appears that reform is indeed on the way. And to be sure, more than a few prisoners in the federal system are overjoyed at lawmakers finally paying attention to their plight. But the glacial pace of action in Washington—coupled with fact that deserving inmates will almost certainly be left out of any sentencing overhaul—makes it hard for American prisoners to get too excited about changing the system.

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