If you don’t think that the War on Drugs has had a terrible impact on American families, you only need to look at the case of Stephanie George. If your boyfriend is a dope dealer and he hides his crack in your attic without your knowledge, you would expect that the courts would understand. But even though the judge in Stephanie’s case agreed that she had nothing to do with her boyfriend’s activities, he still took this mother of three away from her kids for the remainder of her natural life. She was 27 years old at the time.
Even conservatives are starting to admit that mass incarceration is hurting America. They are saying that it turns non-violent offenders into dangers to society, and it increases the number of criminals because 1 out of very 15 black children has a parent in the penitentiary. Kids without parents aren’t exactly prepared to be model citizens when they grow up. Oh, by the way – the War on Drugs hasn’t led to a decline in the amount of drugs imported into our country.
Are Congress and the president going to address this matter anytime soon? To give a very telling metric about the depth of the problem, consider this: England has 41 people serving life sentences without parole. The US has 41,000.
Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.
John Tierney, the Findings columnist for Science Times, is exploring the social science of incarceration. Future articles in this series will look at the effects of current policies on families and communities, and new ideas for dealing with offenders.
But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.
“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”
Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.
“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”
Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.