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The People Left Behind 

Supreme Court's reversal of "mandatory minimums" too late for some

Shortly before Thanksgiving 1983, a modest drug deal went down in a beauty shop in Harlem. Elaine Bartlett, a 26-year-old mother of four, agreed to carry four ounces of cocaine by train from New York City to Albany.

Bartlett was not a drug courier by trade. She worked as a hairdresser and lived in one of Harlem's big public housing projects. A man named Charlie stepped into the back room of the beauty shop one morning and offered her $2,500 for one day's work. When she said yes, she had in mind a huge Thanksgiving feast for her extended family and some new furniture for her tidy little apartment. By the time she sat down to dinner with her family again, 16 years later, it was in a household ruined by years of frustration and neglect, and her children were no longer really hers.

"Charlie," whose real name was George Deets, was a police informant, retained by the state police in Albany to lure New York City dealers upstate. It didn't matter to the cops that Bartlett was not actually in the business, or that she had no convictions of any kind on her record. In fact, everything about the deal was cynically contrived. Deets and a partner named Rich Zagurski had worked on and off for the cops for years, mostly to get themselves out of trouble following minor drug busts. It was never hard to find somebody like Elaine in Harlem, and the authorities in Albany didn't ask too many questions about how they did it.

In this case, the pair set up the deal to get a friend and colleague out of hot water, a service for which they charged their friend a fee. While running this peculiar sort of brokerage, Deets and Zagurski were also importing a kilo of cocaine directly from Colombia into Albany every two weeks, and earning up to $1 million per year. In his dealings with the police, Deets made no secret of his underworld connections.

At trial, Zagurski was asked why he had cooperated with the police. "I just feel that, you know, cocaine is at a bad level and I think that, you know, it should be taken off the street," he testified. Appearances had to be kept up, especially in Albany.

When Bartlett discovered the nature of the setup, she could not bring herself to accept a plea bargain. That was a horrible mistake. New York, that bastion of liberalism, had some of the toughest drug laws in the nation. The sale of four ounces of cocaine, even for a first offender, was punishable by a sentence of 15 years to life. Tried in front of one of the state's most notorious hanging judges, Bartlett was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Bartlett was sentenced under the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which introduced the concept of mandatory minimum sentences to American jurisprudence. Brainchild of former governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the laws were passed in 1973, at the height of the heroin scourge in New York City. Under the new laws, judges no longer had the discretion to consider mitigating factors when sentencing defendants; they had to abide by the minimums established in the code. Early parole was also eliminated.

Rockefeller's drug laws remained on the books for a long time — till last week, in fact, when the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional. Widely copied in state legislatures across the country, the Rockefeller laws formed an enduring legacy. Elaine Bartlett's story is a prime example of how the mandatory minimums initiative went terribly wrong.

Jennifer Gonnerman's Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett is a powerful indictment of mandatory minimums, taking a look at what happens to the people who are left behind when somebody gets incarcerated, and what happens to prisoners once they get home.

A book-length examination of this subject was long overdue. The nation reached a grim milestone in recent years: For the first time the number of persons incarcerated nationwide topped 2 million. The stark reality of that number has moved even some conservatives into rethinking our national response to crime, especially drug crime, which has largely helped drive the total.

Here is a less well-known but equally staggering figure: Every year 600,000 convicts are released from prison. There are now 13 million Americans who have served time. That's 7 percent of the adult population.

For those who have served time, the prospects for re-entry into society are bleak. Most leave prison with little education or job skills, and many have untreated substance abuse problems. Increasingly punitive measures on the outside, meant to dissuade would-be offenders, instead created a kind of caste from which many ex-cons never escape. Felons are officially prohibited from living in federally subsidized public housing. From state to state, they may be prohibited variously from voting, obtaining student loans, driving a car, parenting their children, receiving welfare, or holding certain types of jobs. Forty percent will re-offend within three years. It is a caste with a distinct color: two-thirds of all ex-cons are black or Hispanic.

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