Mandatory minimums are getting reconsidered, yes, but they partially only came about because Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr. lied under oath

This isn’t a new story, but I just came across it and it seemed fairly interesting. Mandatory minimums may be on the way out, but one of the reasons they ever emerged in the first place was because of a massive perjury case in Washington D.C. involving a former narcotics officer named Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr. Here’s some details:

Last winter, after all, the former detective singlehandedly created the biggest perjury scandal in Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) history when he admitted to having lied under oath about his qualifications to be an expert witness in possibly thousands of narcotics cases. When a Washington City Paper reporter tried to interview Brown for a story about the case, Brown spent a week claiming to be his own brother—a story line that petered out when Brown’s mother revealed that she only had one son (“False Witness,” 7/21).

Here’s more:

So the DEA came up with numbers to define high-level trafficking, but a congressman from Kentucky said he would never be able to use the law because they didn’t have trafficking that high in his area. So we needed new numbers. Nobody stopped to say, “But Louisville isn’t Miami or Hollywood or New York. You should be lucky you don’t see this in Louisville.” Suddenly, these numbers just wouldn’t work — we needed “better” numbers. So I called a very respected narc named Johnny St. Valentine Brown, whose nickname was Jehru, to detail to the committee what the numbers should be on minimum trafficking violations.

So a narc was responsible for the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio?

Yes. And later he turned out to be a perjurer and went to federal prison. He had lied for years about graduating from Howard University’s School of Pharmacy and being a pharmacist. In preparation for his sentencing he provided some letters attesting to his good reputation from various figures in D.C., including judges. It turned out he had forged the letters he was submitting to the court to get a more lenient sentence!

Anyway, there was no conversation to determine if crack was even more dangerous than cocaine, or what quantity a mid-level crack dealer might carry in comparison to a mid-level cocaine dealer. It was a seat-of-the-pants judgment from this one narc about what the drug trade in one part of the country might have looked like at that moment in time.

That’s insane.

And those were last-minute items thrown into the first bill that was passed by the House. At the time, the Senate was controlled by Strom Thurmond and the Republicans. They looked at it and said: “OK, well if the Democrats have a sentence of five years to 20 years, let’s up it to 10 years to 40 years. And if the Dems say 20 grams, we’ll make it 5!” Nobody looked at the proper ratios based on how harmful it was. It was completely detached from science. Nobody could say that crack was 100 times more dangerous than powder.

This July 2000 story in Washington City Paper has a lot more context too; essentially, much of the narrative around this concerns Len Bias dying and what that symbolized for Republicans and Democrats in mid-1980s Reagan America. While it’s a more nuanced issue than that, that is essentially where the idea of mandatory minimums emerged from — that, and the whole context around the power and quantity of the drugs being based off lies.

There’s no shortage of academic research on mandatory minimums — consider here and here — but the mostly general consensus is that it led to the current state of American incarceration: 4-5 percent of the world’s population vs. 25 percent of its inmates, 60 percent of those locked up being non-violent offenders, $75 billion total prison cost, etc.

Amazing to contextualize that a lot of it began because of a series of lies from an “expert witness.”

Ted Bauer