Pubdate: Sun, 01 Nov 2015
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The Buffalo News
Author: Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post


Movement May Do More Harm Than Good

PORTLAND, Ore. - When the judge entered the wood-paneled courtroom to 
begin the sentencing hearing this fall, 19-year-old Morgan Brittain 
was the only one who didn't stand. She remained seated in her 
wheelchair in the front row.

Brittain looked in many ways like the girl she once was: Nike 
sneakers with hot pink laces, nails painted maroon and silver. She 
still had the slender frame of the dancer and runner she was before 
she overdosed two years ago on a half a gram of heroin she split with a friend.

The drugs had done serious harm. A younger cousin had to read 
Brittain's statement to the judge on her behalf:

"I constantly feel like a burden on everyone because of all the 
things I can't do: walk, talk easily, feed myself, bathe myself, 
drive, draw or even write this statement out. ... The damage it has 
caused to my family and I is too much to even begin to describe."

Brittain and her family had come to court to face German Tovar-Ramos, 
a man authorities described as a key supplier in the organization 
that sold the heroin to Brittain's friend.

Within days, police arrested TovarRamos because investigators and 
prosecutors had threatened people on lower rungs of the organization 
with stiff mandatory sentences: A girl is on life-support, they said; 
help us get to the higher-level traffickers, or you could end up in 
federal court facing 20 years in prison.

In court, prosecutors portrayed Tovar-Ramos as a high-level drug 
dealer who moved pounds of heroin every week. His defense attorney 
argued that his client was no more than a glorified delivery boy, and 
certainly not a kingpin.

When it was his turn to speak, Tovar-Ramos rose to apologize, dressed 
in a gray-striped county jail uniform. "I am very sorry about 
everything I have done to this family," he said in Spanish, looking 
straight ahead at the judge. "I was simply trying to help out my own family."

The story of how Tovar-Ramos was apprehended illustrates how heavily 
prosecutors rely on mandatory minimum sentences to take down drug 
networks. But this leverage could soon be diminished because of 
concerns that it has been used too liberally to lock up low-level 
nonviolent offenders who face punishments that are much more severe 
than their crimes.

A broad coalition - including President Obama, Koch Industries, the 
American Civil Liberties Union and some police chiefs and district 
attorneys - is calling for the country to recalibrate the scales of 
justice, especially when it comes to the harsh drug sentences that 
have driven a decadeslong surge in the U.S. prison population. Many 
advocates say that the war on drugs has led to needlessly long prison 
terms. The policies have disproportionately affected minority 
communities, since so many of those incarcerated have been black or Latino.

Legislation introduced this month in the House and Senate would 
shorten the length of some mandatory minimums created in the 1980s 
onward and would give judges more leeway in sentencing. The Senate 
version was recently approved by the Judiciary Committee, but no vote 
has been scheduled yet.

Defense attorneys and others pushing to reduce mandatory sentences 
say that the threat of decades in prison leaves defendants without a 
choice at the plea bargaining table. Advocates for sentencing reform 
have also said that judges should have the flexibility to better 
match prison sentences with the threat defendants pose to public safety.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates has expressed the 
administration's support for legislation to reduce some mandatory 
penalties and said prosecutors and investigators could still 
effectively do their jobs without such sentences.

But some prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are lobbying 
against the changes, saying the legislation will make it harder for 
them to dismantle criminal organizations or uncover other crimes, 
including homicides.

"The leverage, the hammer we have comes in those penalties," said 
federal prosecutor Steven H. Cook, who is part of a group of law 
enforcement officials who oppose the sentencing reform legislation. 
"It is the one and only tool we have on the other side."

In Oregon, federal prosecutors said they had no interest in taking 
sides in a politically sensitive policy debate. They agreed, however, 
to talk specifically about how and why they have repeatedly relied on 
mandatory prison sentences to respond to a heroin epidemic that 
nationally accounts for more than 8,250 overdose deaths a year.

Morgan Brittain was nearly one of them.

In May 2013, Brittain was a junior in high school, struggling with 
addiction just as her mother had. After two months at an in-patient 
treatment program, she was excited about coming home to her 
grandmother's house on a weekend pass.

That night, after a few text messages back and forth with a friend, 
Brittain paid her $45 for part of a plastic bag containing half a 
gram of black tar heroin, the size of a pencil eraser. Then she smoked it.

Brittain's grandmother, Ann Linenko, awoke on Mother's Day to the 
crying screams of her two young grandchildren. They had found 
Brittain unconscious on the bedroom floor. Her lips were purple. She 
would spend the next four months in a coma.

Brittain was not expected to live. Her family was days away from 
taking her off a respirator. Slowly, that August, she began to regain 
some brain function.

By then, law enforcement officials had already figured out the source 
of the heroin.

On the morning of her overdose, police relied on the text messages 
and interviews with Brittain's family to track down the friend who 
provided the drug.

The friend pointed police to the street-level dealer, who was 
arrested the next day after a drug sale monitored by police.

What matters most in these cases is not the amount of drugs sold, but 
that a person died or was seriously harmed from the drugs that came 
from a specific dealer. Investigators quickly leapfrog up the 
organization because the low-level players are willing to cooperate 
when they learn about the 20-year-mandatory penalty, a potent 
provision of the anti-drug trafficking law.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom