Drug Offenders and the Prison Crisis

Susan LeFevre was just 19 years old when she was arrested for selling heroin to an undercover cop. She pled guilty to the first-time offense, thinking the judge would be lenient. Instead, he gave her the maximum: 10 to 20 years in prison.

Unable to cope with prison life, Susan escaped over the fence. She changed her name to Marie and eventually married and had children-and, by all accounts, has lived a model life. But after 32 years of her great escape, Susan’s new life unraveled. A tipster told police where she was, and now she is back behind bars, awaiting extradition to Michigan on an escape warrant.

Susan LeFevre’s story puts a human face on why our nation is facing such a stark crisis in the prison system. As I pointed out recently on “BreakPoint,” America has more people locked up than any other country. Some 2.3 million people are behind bars.

But the lion’s share of what fuels this high number is driven by our drug laws, which sweep up many non-violent, low-level drug offenders-like Susan LeFevre. These offenders make up more than one-quarter of all prison inmates: some 530,000 people. Locking up all these people has led to massive prison overcrowding and out-of-control state budgets-so much so that states all over the country are considering releasing thousands of prisoners early, simply because they cannot afford to keep them in custody!

There are better ways to punish nonviolent drug offenders, which is why Prison Fellowship supports alternative sentencing, restitution, and rehabilitation for those addicted to drugs. And it is why we supported the recently passed Second Chance Act, which provides grants to government agencies and faith-based groups that help prisoners and ex-prisoners overcome their addictions and become productive members of society.

Ironically, it may take the plight of a fugitive mom to open the eyes of Americans to the need to reform our drug laws. Of course, we do not know all the details of Susan LeFevre’s case. Authorities in Michigan say, for instance, that she was a leader of a drug ring. And there is no doubt that escaping from prison is a serious offense.

But according to the San Diego Tribune, before throwing the book at LeFevre in 1975, the judge told her, “I just hope you do change your own life.”

Well, it seems that she did change her life. E. Brady Denton, the prosecutor at the time of Susan’s trial, recently told the San Diego Tribune that if he were the prosecutor now, he would not put her back in prison. He would sentence her under new Michigan guidelines, “which would factor in a prior record, the severity of the crime, and what she has done with her life.”

Denton said, “I’d give her probation and let her go back [to] be with her family in California.”

Micah 6:8 says that God has shown us what is good: to do justice and to love mercy. I hope that the authorities in Susan LeFevre’s case will show mercy as they uphold justice. And let us do what we can to ensure that all the less-famous, low-level drug offenders now in custody will receive not only the justice, but the mercy they deserve.

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  • Most people have no idea how much harm would be alleviated by re-legalizing marijuana, opiates, and even cocaine. As a man I respect greatly once said, “I’ve seen and read about people being messed up worse by prison than I ever could have imagined anyone could be messed up by Pot.”

  • mkochan

    I think we could keep the drugs illegal IF the sentences mandated treatemnt and rehabilitation instead of prison. It isn’t the illegality that is the problem; it is the way the offenders are treated that is wrong.