650-Lifer Punishment Is a Crime

The rise of Tim Allen’s career is one of the great success stories of this decade. His television program, Home Improvement, captivates American audiences with his "regular guy" humor, which has also led to success on the big screen and in books. Today, Allen reaps the rewards brought by his gift for making people laugh. But there was a time in his life when no one was laughing, especially Tim Allen.

In October 1978, Timothy Allen Dick was arrested with over 650 grams of cocaine (about 1.4 pounds) in an undercover drug bust at the Kalamazoo airport. Later, when Timothy Dick became Tim Allen, he would say the bust "probably saved my life." But at the time of arrest, his future was far from bright. Just a month before, Michigan lawmakers passed one of the harshest drug laws in the country, the "650-lifer law." A conviction for delivering more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin meant that Timothy Allen Dick would spend the rest of his life in prison. No breaks, no parole, no kidding.

The law that threatened Tim Allen’s future and set a precedent for mandatory drug sentencing laws across the country was enacted quietly by Michigan lawmakers, eager to throw the book at drug kingpins. Tacked on to a massive public health bill, the law passed without hearings or economic analysis.

Michigan judges weren’t consulted either. The new 650-lifer law prohibited judges from using discretion when sentencing, giving discretion instead to the prosecutor who brings the charge. This harsh treatment of defendants eventually led to almost uniform disapproval of the law by judges, prison officials, attorneys, and even the bill’s sponsors. Paul Rosenbaum, the bill’s original sponsor said, "The statute is flawed because it eliminates a judge’s ability to exercise discretion. It has been used to snare too many who fit the language, the letter of the act, but who in no way fit the intent, the spirit of the act."

Rosenbaum’s comments describe Jedonna Young. Arrested in October 1978 (the same month as Allen), Young, a 25-year-old mother and heroin addict, received a life sentence without parole for possession of over 650 grams of heroin with intent to deliver. Young’s co-defendant, James Gulley, was the target of a major undercover investigation. Police observed Young placing a plastic bag that contained heroin in the trunk of a car she was driving with Gulley. The Sixth Circuit Court in Young v. Miller found that beyond this instance, Jedonna was not a partner in Gulley’s business, had no criminal record, and was a drug addict, not a kingpin. "In this case, we believe that the tiger trap may have sprung upon a sick kitten. We are not at all convinced that petitioner Young is the type of ‘kingpin’ drug dealer the Michigan legislature has targeted for its harshest punishment," wrote the court in 1989.

Young’s case is not an exception. Michigan Department of Corrections data for 1996 show that 86 percent of the inmates serving life under the 650 law had no prior prison record at the time of their arrest, and seven were teenagers when convicted for life. Drug offenders now represent 15 percent of Michigan’s total prison population, a 932 percent increase since 1983.

Longer sentences and increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders has cost Michigan taxpayers big money. To keep pace with the exploding prison population, the corrections budget increased 1,428 percent between 1976 and 1996, from $65 million to $1.27 billion, making it one of the fastest growing segments of the state’s budget. In 1986, prison spending consumed 6.4 percent of Michigan’s general fund, but by 1996 it consumed 15.1 percent. It is projected that drug offenders will occupy more Michigan prison beds than murderers, rapists, and violent criminals in 1997. Are people like Tim Allen and Jedonna Young great enough threats to public safety to justify this enormous outlay of tax dollars and use of scarce prison space?

Allen was lucky enough to know other drug dealers to turn in in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. He ended up being prosecuted federally, did two-and-a-half years in prison, and went on to a successful career. Jedonna Young wasn’t so fortunate. As a low-level drug addict, she had no valuable information to trade for her freedom. Instead, she will sit in prison until she dies. She has already served seventeen years behind bars for her offense.

Michigan legislators have tinkered with the 650-lifer law, but never fixed it. The legislature recently passed a bill that permits juveniles convicted under the 650 law to serve 25 years without parole, instead of life, but that improvement does not help inmates like Jedonna Young. For both fiscal and social reasons, Michigan lawmakers need to finish the job and repeal or further modify this draconian and counterproductive measure.