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Fighting Mandatory Sentences for Drug Crimes

In 1998, Lawrence Garrison and his brother Lamont were students at Howard University in Washington. They both worked for the Justice Department, and planned to attend law school. But a man who had fixed their car was arrested on drug charges. He told investigators that the Garrisons had been involved.

LAWRENCE GARRISON: "And they questioned me. That's when they showed me pictures of Tito Abea. They asked, 'Have you ever seen this guy?' I said, 'Yeah, he fixed my car.'"

The repairman could have received a ten year jail sentence for drug distribution. The only way to reduce that sentence was to say someone else was involved.

Critics of mandatory sentences say people suspected of violating drug laws often falsely accuse others. Julie Stewart is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences.

JULIE STEWART: "So they'll give someone up. Other times, people actually even make up names, and say, 'Well, yeah, so and so did this you know -- I know, I saw him one time.'"

Lamont Garrison remembers being given the chance to reduce his sentence.

LAMONT GARRISON: "And they said, 'OK, Mr. Garrison, it's your opportunity, you know, to help yourself.' And I said, 'Well, help myself how? You know, what do you mean?' 'Well, you know, you know what this is about, you guys were guys were doing wrong, XYZ, you know, you got to tell us what you were doing.' I said I wasn't doing anything wrong, so there's nothing to talk about."

JULIE STEWART: "They call it the best tool in their arsenal. Because they can hold that hammer over a defendant's head and say, 'If you don't either give us more information you're going to get this five or ten year sentence.'"

The Garrisons were never charged with drug possession, just conspiracy. A federal jury in Virginia ruled against them because of the statements of the repairman and his brother. Government lawyers presented no other evidence.

JULIE STEWART: "So, there was such an enormous sensitivity around the crack cocaine issue that I think you could have taken just about anybody to trial and charged them, you know, charged them with some sort of crack cocaine offense and found them guilty."

Lawrence Garrison served 12 years in jail. His brother served almost 14. The repairman was sentenced to 18 months.

The Garrisons no longer have any interest in the law. They say the system is corrupt. I'm Jim Tedder.