It was decades ago that high crime rates and serious drug crimes resulted in the swift passing of mandatory sentences in order to put major kingpins behind bars, but today that same legislation is being used to destroy Black families all across the nation.
For one mother it’s been almost two decades since she has seen her children.
They were just kids when nonviolent drug charges landed her behind bars and after 17 years she is reuniting with them as adults.
Stephanie George was a 26-year-old mother of three when officers found half a kilo of cocaine and more than $10,000 in her attic.
George already had two prior drug offenses, which meant the officers’ discovery would force George to face a life sentence.
It’s a sentence, she says, that was a result of her putting her trust in her ex-boyfriend who is also the father of one of her children.
George’s lack of involvement in any actual drug dealing was something Judge Roger Vinson even acknowledged himself back in 1997 when he sentenced the mother-of-three.
“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing, your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing,” Vinson said, according to court transcripts. “So certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”
Years later, Vinson says he remembers George and he remembers her well.
“I remember sentencing Stephanie George,” he told NPR. “She was a co-defendant in that case but…I remember her distinctly. I remember a lot of sentencings from 25 or 30 years ago. They stay in your mind. I mean you’re dealing with lives.”
Like many other judges, Vinson realized there wasn’t much he could do about the fact that he felt the life sentence was harsh—as harsh as it was, it was still “mandatory.”
These mandatory sentencing laws have been criticized by many advocates who say lives are being torn apart by the outdated legislation.
These aren’t kingpins being targeted anymore. These are mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, people who have simply made mistakes.
The type of mistakes that did not harm nearly as many people as their sentences will.
For George, those years behind bars meant she would never see her youngest son ever again.
“I lost my baby son,” she told NPR.
Her son was 19 when he was fatally shot just months before George was scheduled to be released. He was 4 when George saw him last.
“I feel bad because I’m not coming home to all of them, you know,” she said. “He was 4 when I left, but I miss him.”
It wasn’t just her children who suffered either after they were forced to grow up without their mother. Her sister Wendy’s marriage fell apart after she took on the responsibility of caring for George’s children.
“I may not have been incarcerated, literally locked up, but I was locked up in certain areas of my life,” Wendy said.
She also said that she was missing a part of her when her sister, only two years apart in age, was locked up.
Holidays weren’t the same for the family and Wendy says she struggled to even work up an appetite.
It wasn’t until last December that President Obama intervened and commuted George’s sentence.
It’s the only reason this mother is able to wrap her arms around her children again instead of spending the rest of her life in jail.
Even then, it seems like she did indeed spend one life in jail and now she’s starting over in a new one nearly 20 years later.
“This is not the person you knew 17 years ago,” Wendy said of her sister. “Now you gotta learn to know this person. And you know you don’t know what kind of mindset she has now. You don’t know how it affected her and you know it goes both ways, with me and with her.”
George also has much less trust in people now.
She explained that she won’t even ride with people for fear that they could have drugs in the vehicle and she could find herself behind bars once again for someone else’s poor decisions.
This type of fear isn’t something a mother should have to live with and it’s something that U.S. District Judge John Gleeson says is bad for the entire justice system.
“Mandatory minimums, to some degree, sometimes entirely, take judging out of the mix,” he told NPR. “That’s a bad thing for our system…We talk about numbers, but at the end of the process it’s not a number getting the sentence—it’s a person, a person with a family from a community.”