Sen. Sessions Should Meet the Families of Those Serving Unjust Sentences

Missy Trigg with her son Brad on visiting day

Paul Fields is just halfway through a 15-and-a-half year prison sentence. His daughter, now 8, was an infant when he went to federal prison. His crime? Growing marijuana. He hadn’t sold any; not a single crop had been harvested when he was arrested. Robyn Hamilton was caught up in a drug conspiracy that netted her 10 years. Her judge, forced to impose the mandatory minimum, called her sentence “draconian.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions has never met either of these people. Yet as President-elect Trump’s pick for Attorney General, his views on criminal justice will affect many nonviolent drug offenders, like Robyn and Paul, who suffer under excessive mandatory minimum sentences. Sen. Sessions has championed lengthy, mandatory sentences despite mounting evidence that there are more cost-effective ways to reduce crime.

Sen. Sessions deserves credit for supporting the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the indefensible disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. Yet he opposed a subsequent bill that would have broadened its effect. In 2011, he wrote in a letter to Eric Holder that “reducing sentences is not tough, creates unpredictability, harms public safety, promotes recidivism.” This year, with Sen. Tom Cotton, Sessions led the charge against modest sentencing reform, even though there was wide bipartisan support for the measure.

Sessions’ support for lengthy mandatory sentences is consistent with the position staked out by President-elect Trump during the campaign. Trump promised that in his first 100 days of office he would pass new mandatory minimum sentencing laws. He also called nonviolent offenders “dangerous drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.”

It would be hard to find anything about Melissa “Missy” Trigg that fits this description. In 2001, she left the abusive husband who introduced her to methamphetamine and got caught up in the drug conspiracy that eventually landed her a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. Missy is the first to admit she needed to be punished, but the one-size-fits-all sentence she received is absurdly long for a person with no prior criminal record who did not physically harm anyone.

Mandy Martinson and Evans Ray would agree. Like Missy, Mandy was a first-time, nonviolent offender. She was sentenced to 15 years for helping her dealer-boyfriend in exchange for methamphetamine to feed her addiction. Evans was sentenced to life plus 10 years for his nonviolent drug offense. But unlike Missy Trigg, both Mandy Martinson and Evans Ray “won the lottery”: Obama commuted their sentences this year. Both will be spending their first holidays home in more than a decade. Clemency can fix some mistakes, but even when used often, it cannot correct the inherently flawed laws that Congress needs to amend.

A few days before Thanksgiving, President Obama announced 79 additional sentence commutations. But that news was tempered by Trump’s pick of Jeff Sessions to lead our criminal justice system, leadership that might very well mean the undoing of years of work to get rid of harsh and ineffective sentencing laws. The sentencing reform bill that Sessions opposed in Congress was so modest that it would not have prevented 15-year mandatory sentences for first-time offenders like Mandy and Missy, even if it had passed.

There are thousands of people like Mandy Martinson, Missy Trigg, Paul Fields, and Robyn Hamilton spending way too much time behind bars. Their excessive sentences not only cause unnecessary hardship for their families and communities, they divert resources that could be put to better use catching more dangerous offenders. As attorney general, Sen. Sessions is going to have to make tough choices about how to spend limited anti-crime dollars. If he took the time to meet and listen to the families of people like Mandy, Missy, Paul, and Robyn, he would realize very quickly what a waste our current sentencing laws are.