The aim of this TakePart series is to show that wrong convictions are not restricted to innocent defendants who are falsely found guilty. Mandatory minimum sentencing policies are piling years of unwarranted penitentiary time on first-time, nonviolent offenders. Prosecutorial manipulation of jailhouse informers routinely hangs truth and justice upon the words of a single snitch. America’s broken justice system is cruel and unusual by the standards of the developed world. It needs to be fixed.
Timothy Tyler has been a life-long Grateful Dead fan. In the early ’90s, he loyally followed the band across the country as it toured, engaging in a Deadhead culture in which LSD was nearly sacrosanct. During this time, Timothy sold small amounts of LSD to friends and eventually was convicted of two state charges for LSD sales, which resulted in sentences of probation.
At some point, one of his friends was arrested and began working with federal law enforcement to set up drug buys in exchange for the promise of a lighter sentence. During a two-month period, this friend asked Timothy to mail him LSD five times, which Timothy did.
Timothy was arrested and pled guilty to drug distribution. At age 24, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole because his two prior drug convictions (for which he did not serve prison time) triggered the federal three-strikes law.
The judge couldn’t consider Timothy’s drug addiction, lack of violent conduct, mental health issues, or youth when sentencing. The mandatory minimum sentence makes that information irrelevant. Timothy has been behind bars since 1992. His friend served 10 years, as a reward for cooperating with the government.
Each year, Timothy’s story is replayed in thousands of courtrooms across this country. Defendants with useful information about other criminals and crimes can offer prosecutors what is known as “substantial assistance”—commonly called snitching or cooperating.
Snitching is one of the only ways out of a mandatory minimum sentence, a pre-set prison term created by lawmakers and unchangeable by judges. Selling an ounce of crack cocaine, for example, requires a five-year federal prison sentence, regardless of any special or unusual circumstances—unless a person gives law enforcement the information it seeks.
Kingpins, in contrast, have a wealth of valuable knowledge to trade and can get less time than the minor players in the crime.
In 2010 alone, nearly one out of five federal offenders facing a mandatory sentence escaped it because they informed on others.
Snitching isn’t all bad, of course. Cooperating defendants can help police and prosecutors lock people up and protect the public. But cooperation has its downsides.
Mandatory minimum sentences require so much time in prison—five, 10, 15, 20 years, or, as in Timothy’s case, life without parole—that they can easily scare defendants into saying anything, true or not, to catch a break. Desperate defendants can finger the innocent or lie under oath, leading to wrongful convictions.
Prosecutors—and only prosecutors—can ask the court to sentence the helpful offender below the mandatory minimum prison sentence required for the crime. Understandably, this gives prosecutors enormous—and unreviewable—power at sentencing.
Finally, small fish with no one to hand over to the police lack information prosecutors want. Ironically, these small timers end up getting the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences lawmakers intended to apply to high-level dealers and kingpins. Those kingpins, in contrast, have a wealth of valuable knowledge to trade and can get less time than the minor players in the crime.
The real problem isn’t cooperation, however, but the harsh, inflexible mandatory minimum sentences that compel it.
Mandatory minimums bar judges from fitting the punishment to the unique facts and circumstances of each case, producing absurd results like Timothy Tyler’s life without parole sentence.
Mandatory minimums aren’t proven to keep us safer or reduce crime. They have succeeded in giving the U.S. the world’s largest prison population, at an annual cost of more than $70 billion. Every year, two-thirds of all federal drug offenders receive mandatory minimum sentences of five or 10 years without parole. Many of these offenders would be better served with treatment and less time away from their families and communities. After 25 years of this policy, it’s unsurprising that over half of the total federal prison population—currently at 218,000 and climbing—is serving time for a drug offense.
The solution is to eliminate mandatory minimums, not snitching. Short of that, lawmakers should expand the “safety valve” laws that allow judges to disregard mandatory sentences whenever necessary to avoid irrational or unjust results.
In 1994, FAMM helped Congress create a “safety valve” for federal drug offenders. The law lets courts sentence below the mandatory minimum when a person fulfills a strict, five-part test. This “safety valve” has produced fairer sentences in more than 80,000 cases. It should be expanded to include even more offenders.
Timothy Tyler committed a crime and deserved punishment, but his mandatory life without parole sentence was excessive—and there was nothing the judge could do about it.
Snitching may have brought Timothy Tyler to court, but did it really bring him to justice?
Would you snitch for a lesser sentence? Tell who you would and would not sell out in COMMENTS.
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Molly M. Gill is the government affairs counsel for FAMM, a nonprofit organization devoted to abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing laws. She has 8 years of criminal law experience, including assisting with the prosecution of gang and weapons crimes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit FAMM | @FAMMFoundation
- Crime & Justice
- Politics & Government
- Mandatory minimum sentencing