- - Sunday, March 27, 2016


Nonprofit advocacy organizations spring up in Washington like mushrooms after a hard rain in early spring. Most of them profess to be working to build a better world, and some are. But few of them do very much of anything. They issue studies and statements that nobody reads, hold press conferences that few attend and raise money, sometimes a lot of money, to pay for studies, press conferences and the expense of raising more money. Many of the non-profits are staffed by men and women who are well motivated and well-meaning. Others are run by those who come to Washington to do good, and stay to do well.

Occasionally one of them accomplishes something important and makes a lasting mark on the landscape. Last week several hundred supporters of one nonprofit organization, which has accomplished more bang for its buck than most, gathered to celebrate its work of a quarter of a century, and the extraordinary woman who presides over it. The group is Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the remarkable woman is Julie Stewart. Few nonprofits can claim the support of so wide an array of men and women in Washington, ranging from President Obama’s White House legal counsel to senators to the Koch brothers.

Julie Stewart moved to Washington in the 1990s to take a job at the Cato Institute. She knew little about the criminal-justice system, or that men and women caught up in the toils of the law could be sent to prison for years, decades or life for relatively minor first-time non-violent crimes,

while murderers, rapists and other violent felons are put back on the streets after a short time behind bars. In 1991, her brother was arrested in the state of Washington for growing a few marijuana plants. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison by a judge who said he thought the sentence far too harsh, but who was required by law to impose a mandatory minimum sentence.

Julie was outraged. She studied the law and its implications and decided to do something about it. The result was Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, and over the years organized 3,000 volunteer lawyers to work for those unfairly sentenced to harsh penalties for minor crimes, sparked a bipartisan discussion of the law, and won the release of thousands of prisoners.

FAMM is no “criminals’ lobby,” but an organization of men and women who believe that lawbreakers should receive appropriate sentences for breaking the law. A dozen former prisoners, including several freed from unfair life sentences after decades in prison, were guests at the celebration of last week. Miss Stewart is regarded by them as a saint, someone who gave them hope when reason told them there was none, and fought for their release.

She regards herself as neither saint nor heroine, but a good citizen who saw something cruel and inhumane and set out to do something about it by “putting one foot ahead of the other,” and repeating that for 25 years. Dedication and hard work are always the keys to reform. In the eyes of those who benefit from her vision and dedication, she is a heroine, and maybe even a saint. We think so, too.


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