Why did Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time nonviolent drug offender, get a life sentence? She and her husband divorced in 1989. The next year, she lost her job as a FedEx manager, followed by bankruptcy and home foreclosure in 1991. The following year, the mother of five lost her youngest child in a tragic motorcycle accident. She says the emotional and financial pressure caused her to make the “biggest mistake of (her) life.” By her own admission, she “became what is called a telephone mule … passing messages between the distributors and sellers … in a drug conspiracy.” She and 15 others were arrested in 1993 for drug trafficking and money laundering.
While many of her co-defendants were given reduced or dropped charges for cooperating with prosecutors, Johnson was convicted for cocaine conspiracy and money laundering in 1996, and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole, plus an additional 25 years.
In the ’80s and ’90s, many black leaders supported tough anti-drug laws. Facing an inner-city explosion of gang activity, violent crime and a crack epidemic, black politicians pressured Congress to pass these laws. The Rev. George McMurray was pastor of Harlem’s Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in the ’70s, a time when New York City faced a major heroin epidemic. He favoured life sentences for convicted drug dealers. “When you send a few men to prison for life, someone’s going to pass the word down, ‘It’s not too good over here,’” McMurray said. “So instead of robbery and selling dope, (they’ll think) ‘I want to go to school and live a good life.’”
When President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law — the law that punished crack cocaine dealers far more harshly than powder cocaine dealers — Harlem’s Rep. Charlie Rangel stood right behind Reagan. Crack dealers, many of whom were black, got harsher sentences than those who dealt powder cocaine, many of whom were white. And Congressional Black Caucus members pushed Reagan to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy.