by Nancy Crist
Kevin Ring was bitten by the political bug after interning on Capitol Hill during college. “I was a typical Hill rat,” Kevin says. “I rose through the ranks.” After graduating from Syracuse University, he worked as a legislative aide by day and attended law school at night. By the time Newt Gingerich became speaker of the house in 1995, Ring had earned his law degree.
“The Gingerich revolution brought a demand for staff,” Ring says. “By objective standards, I was a decent staffer. I was a policy guy who was a lawyer. I knew the ideology. I knew what our (party) believed. I could match policy to ideology and that served me well.” Much of his policy work involved pushing for mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
Today he pushes in the opposite direction. In January he became president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national nonprofit founded in 1991 by Julie Stewart after her brother was sentenced to five years in federal prison for growing marijuana, his first offense. Stewart’s organization has led the charge against unfair sentencing and adoption of sentencing that fits the crime.
The irony of his new job is not lost on Ring. In fact, it is his way of atoning for his role in advancing laws that established mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, which was based on nothing but political rhetoric. “There wasn’t a lot of deep thinking about a lot of issues,” Ring says. “It was more us versus them and moving the ball forward. (Dealing drugs) was not a world I knew, and my ignorance led me to write bad laws. I just didn’t know people who were getting hit with these sentences.”
Writing a law without researching its implications is business as usual in Washington. “There never has been (enough consideration) when it comes to criminal law,” Ring says. “That’s why we have such a terrible criminal code.”
One of FAMM’s board members, Eric Sterling, had a similar experience while working on Capitol Hill. “Eric has talked about writing drug laws in the 1980s,” Ring says. “It was the same type of evidence-free, consequence-free consideration that I saw when working on the hill. The people writing the laws don’t even know the people in their community that will be impacted the hardest. They’re thinking how this benefits them politically.”
The 1980s were a time of moral panic. “When Eric talks about drafting drug laws, people were pulling numbers out of nowhere. Five grams will get you five years. Why not three years or seven years? It’s all arbitrary, and that’s what I saw as the playing field.”
FAMM has made great strides in sentencing reform over the past 26 years. In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced all drug incarceration guidelines. “We were the only one pushing for that,” Ring says. “Because of that change, 30,000 people got sentences, on average, of two years shorter. It was retroactive, so people in prison were able to apply. That’s real progress. That’s real reform.”
In addition to influencing policy, FAMM also responds to media requests for interviews with people affected by the policy changes they are covering. “That’s what we do,” Ring says. “There are a lot of groups doing great criminal justice reform, but as far as what makes FAMM different, that’s it. A lot of matchmaking in the storytelling.”
Despite progress in recent years, the appointment of Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general has many justice reform advocates fearing a backslide. Sessions’ “tough on crime” rhetoric included issuing a memo to federal prosecutors advising them to use “the tools Congress has given us.” Sessions is encouraging prosecutors to revive tactics used with the war on drugs, when charges were stacked to increase the prison term, such as adding gun charges to a drug dealing charge.
“Frankly, we’re seeing it with the opioids now,” Ring says. There are states that want murder or manslaughter charges for a person who gives opioids to someone who overdoses, regardless of the circumstances. “We’re scared out of our minds, rightfully, that people are dying. But the decision making is not great in that sort of panicked environment.”
Adding to the knee-jerk political climate is the “violent crime is up” narrative, which Trump and Sessions continue to use. Despite a decrease in crime across the country, Trump and Sessions choose to focus on the rise of violent crimes in a few larger cities, like Chicago, which has seen a rise in murders.
“…states that have repealed their mandatory minimum have seen a drop in incarceration and crime rates,” Ring says. “That’s why it’s so maddening that the president and attorney general won’t stop talking about Chicago and they don’t even mention the president’s home town. New York City is at the lowest crime rate in god knows how long after repealing its mandatory minimum. But that doesn’t fit their narrative, so they don’t talk about it.”
While Trump and Sessions maintain that the best way to keep Americans safe is to put more people in prison, many members of the Republican Party are joining bipartisan prison reform efforts. “The Koch brothers support justice reform and have for years,” Ring says.
Although a number of states have experienced a drop in both crime and incarceration after reducing or dropping mandatory sentencing, it is difficult to show cause and effect. “The onus is on us to prove that reform will reduce crime,” Ring says. “All we’re saying is, don’t put people in cages unless you know it to be true. And that’s what they can’t prove.
“There are periods of progress and retraction,” Ring says. “We have had a good run with the wind at our backs, advancing some common sense reforms (especially) at the state level. Now, between the Trump administration’s rhetoric and the opioid crisis, we are really focused on beating back bad ideas and not losing what we have won.”
To accomplish this, Ring and his staff are working to win hearts and minds through social media and grassroots speaking events. “We have to talk to people, and not just those who agree with us, but also to those who are skeptical,” Ring says. We’re using this as a period for capacity building and culture changing and making sure people understand why harsh mandatory minimums are not the answer for the opioid crisis.”
Building that understanding means meeting people where they’re at on the issue. Ring believes most people are driven by self-interest when it comes to sentencing reform. So the discussion needs to be about public safety and “…assuring the public that locking up people and throwing away the key for every offense is not making them safer,” Ring says. “That’s because (prisoners) will come out eventually, and they’re not going to come out better.” He is referring to the exceptionally long sentences that isolate prisoners from society without giving them the tools and support needed to re-enter their communities and become successful, contributing members.
“Locking up a low-level offender for an excessive term means you’ll have fewer resources to put another cop on the street or do other things that really would produce public safety benefits,” Ring says. “So it’s really about telling (the public) that hammering every person who commits a crime isn’t feasible in a world of finite resources.”
Ring believes it all comes down to the question, Can we do better? He believes the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The criminal laws have been on the books for 30 years, but now there is research and data that point towards a more cost-effective, smarter alternative to the “tough on crime” rhetoric and excessive prison terms.
FAMM recently received the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Advocacy Innovation Grant, which it plans to use to increase its ability to tell the stories of the people affected by unfair sentences, putting faces to the issue. “(We) will be building up our capacity, our staff and our databases to be able to identify and track these stories and mobilize more people who have been affected by the (legal) system,” Ring says. “When you consider that 2.7 million kids have a parent in prison, and you think of how many former felons are in this country right now, we know that if people who’ve been affected would weigh in, we’d have an army. We want to tell stories that change hearts and minds.”