The following op-ed by Professor Carol Steiker ’86, “Passing the buck on mercy,” was published in the September 7, 2008, edition of the Washington Post

When Susan LeFevre was 19, she was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover officer in Saginaw, Mich. It was 1974, and she was a first-time offender. She believed that if she pleaded guilty, she would probably get probation.

She was wrong. After her guilty plea, she was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in state prison.

One year later, LeFevre hopped a fence and fled the prison. She moved to California and adopted her middle name, Marie. Years passed. She eventually married and raised three children, dedicating herself to her family and charitable causes. She never committed another offense. Her husband and children knew nothing about her youthful conviction or prison sentence — until April, when, 32 years after her escape, she was arrested and extradited to Michigan.

LeFevre’s lawyers have asked the judge to set aside her original drug sentence, but the local district attorney has filed new charges against her for escaping prison. If convicted, LeFevre could be sentenced to an additional five years on top of her drug sentence. It is almost certain that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm will have to decide whether to commute LeFevre’s sentence.

Supporters of clemency contend that locking up Marie LeFevre would destroy her family and serve no purpose, as she already has done what the original sentencing judge urged her to do back in 1975: turn her life around. Opponents argue that commutation would send the wrong message and reward LeFevre’s escape from prison. Both sides miss the bigger picture.

Sitting in her cell in Plymouth, Mich., LeFevre is one of 2 million Americans behind bars. Many of them, like LeFevre, are nonviolent drug offenders. The staggering number of American prisoners has made the United States the world’s leading incarcerator; this nation locks up a greater number of offenders for longer periods than any other nation. In 1960, approximately 330,000 people were behind bars in the United States. Today the number is 2.3 million. Moreover, largely because of the “war on drugs,” the increase in women’s incarceration in recent years has far outstripped the increase in men’s, devastating many families and communities.

How did we scale the soaring peaks of mass incarceration? The decline of mercy has played a leading role. With the noble intent of bringing rationality and order to what had often been a chaotic and even discriminatory system of criminal justice, reformers at every stage of the justice system have sought to limit the power of discretionary actors to say no to punitive policies.

Continue reading “Passing the buck on mercy.”