Mandatory minimums unfairly rigid

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (U-WIRE) — Five and a half years ago, Kemba Smith’s life was taken away. At the age of 23, she received a 24-year sentence for drug-related charges. But she never actually sold or used drugs. The sentences for people convicted of robbery, sexual assault, even voluntary manslaughter are often much shorter than this. Why on earth was Kemba slapped in the face with this insane life-consuming time? Because of mandatory-minimum sentencing.
Mandatory minimums are predetermined sentencing times bracketed by the type and amount of drugs one is convicted of dealing with. Mandatory minimums are laws politicians support in order to make them look “tough on crime.” Yeah, that’s really tough on crime when you send a mother, beaten by her drug-dealing boyfriend, to prison for 24 years. I’m sure that really made a difference.
Kemba’s story is a tragic one. It’s even more tragic because of the countless other people who suffer from the unjust ruling of mandatory minimums. Kemba was a good kid in high school with an 8 p.m. curfew. When she got to college, freed from her parents’ shelter, she met a guy by the name of Peter Michael Hall. Peter was at the time using an alias and posing as an upperclassman at the university. She, however, wouldn’t discover these lies until it was too late.
Peter beat her nearly dead on several occasions, one time while she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry. She was a classic sufferer of battered woman syndrome — unable to leave her beater and willing to do any anything for him. She carried a gun in her purse for him and filled other random assisting roles. However, she never did drugs, nor did she ever sell them.
When Peter suspected federal agents were on to him, he killed his friend who he believed had been talking. He then told Kemba to lie to the feds and find out any possible information she could about his case. Out of sheer fear for her and her family’s life, she complied.
In the end, Peter was found dead in his apartment, and Kemba was the only clear link left to blame. Others involved in Peter’s $4 million drug ring had already cut deals, but it was too late for Kemba. Although the federal prosecutor called her a “minor player,” she received a 24-year sentence with no parole.
Michigan and New York have the stiffest laws regarding mandatory-minimum sentencing and drugs. Kemba is just one among many men and women who are currently serving ridiculously long sentences for being “minor players” in drug rings. With the mandatory minimums, your prior record doesn’t matter. These sentencing guidelines are across-the-board, preset standards.
Other major flaws in this legislation — aside from tying the hands of judges — are they often only serve to catch these “minor players.” People who are really involved in the drug business have lots of friends’ names they can sell off to the police in order to reduce their own sentencing and get some sort of deal. But those who are only mildly involved have no such luxury.
Or, in Kemba’s case, they’re being so severely beaten they fear for their own lives.
It seems that Kemba’s major mistake was not cooperating rather than her assisting involvement in Hall’s drug biz. A girl who assisted Hall in the murder of his friend made a deal and got no time.
So now, how must Kemba pay for this mistake? By living her entire “outside” lifetime, plus one and a half years, behind the bars of prison. By not being able to raise her own son. Should a young woman, exhibiting classic symptoms of self-blame associated with the battered woman syndrome, be held to these sort of time standards?
A young woman is serving 24 years in a federal prison because she was a “minor player.” All because of these universal standards for crimes. I thought our legal system was all about getting a fair trial. How can a trial be fair and hand down the proper punishment if the sentencing is already set?

Erin Mcquinn’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Michigan paper, the Michigan Daily.