A Cracked Foundation: Roads to redemption and Criminal Justice Reform
Text: Rhakia Nance
It’s a rainy but warm day in mid-March--a good indicator of the coming change in season. It is also a day where Steffany “Stet” Frazier, an inmate serving a life sentence at a federal penitentiary in southeast Atlanta, speaks in hopes of expounding on a different kind of change.
A change not only for himself, but potentially over 3,000 other incarcerated individuals dealing with the impacts of long-standing drug laws that have arguably dealt more harm than justice.
But, let’s rewind this tale a bit. To a history of consequences when powder cocaine became a rock that fractured the lives of so many.
Cocaine: An Indigenous Beginning
Coca leaves were first chewed by the ancient Incas to combat the harsh mountain air and used by native Peruvians for their holiest ceremonies. Now an illicit substance, cocaine use actually predates every modern drug law—not to mention Christ.
First used commercially for treating illnesses from impotence to depression, and in products like Coca-Cola, cocaine remained unregulated in the U.S. until 1914 before being banned in 1922 following thousands of drug related deaths.
Today, cocaine is a schedule one narcotic heavily regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency and its illegal use and distribution has forever shaped the culture of criminal justice in America with its impacts heavily weighted against communities of color.
A drug called by another name
Fast forwarding to half a century after its prohibition, a more recent history of the same drug emerged along with a new name and harsh penalties.
Base. Candy. Rock. All new slang for the solid product created by introducing baking soda to its already highly addictive substrate, powder cocaine.
By the mid-1980s, crack cocaine exploded on the drug scene, largely due to its affordability—up to 80 percent cheaper than its powder counterpart—and the ability to induce a comparable if not stronger high.The widespread accessibility of crack led to strong racial and cultural implications as the drug quickly became synonymous with urban areas and minority crime in the public eye.
While what was soon coined as “the crack epidemic” swept across a new nation of sellers and users, the federal government passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 in an effort to establish standard sentencing for drug offenders. The act created the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency tasked with setting drug sentencing guidelines. However, the guidelines enacted for crack offenders by the commission in its early years, despite possible well-meaning intentions, would have devastating consequences in the decades that followed.
It was in 1986, two years after the inception of the USSC, that Len Bias, a young, black, rising basketball star was drafted to play for the Boston Celtics. Just hours after the celebratory news, Bias was found dead from a presumed crack overdose. If the war on drugs, the frenzy of media myths and political fear that followed could be illuminated by any inciting incidents, Bias’ death could be considered a clear shot fired.
The Real Crack Baby: A War On Drugs and Black Communities
Mandatory minimums is an all too familiar term to those found guilty of crack possession and their families since the start of the so-called war on drugs in the late 1980s.
Following Bias’ death, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, creating a minimum sentencing requirement of five years for the possession of five grams of crack. The law proved inequitable as offenders could possess up to 500 grams of cocaine before triggering the same five-year penalty. This effectively created a sentencing disparity of 100:1 for possession of crack versus powder cocaine.
The law provided for sentencing maximums, allowing for even first-time, non-violent offenders like Steffany Frazier to be sentenced up to life in prison for possessing larger quantities of crack cocaine.
“I was absolutely shocked at the sentence he was given,” said Steffany Frazier’s brother Emanuel. “While Stet, the family, nor myself was proclaiming that Stet was innocent, we were flabbergasted at the length of the sentence. The sentence he received should be reserved for people that have taken the lives of others or have a sordid criminal history.”
It did not take long for the effects of harsher sentencing laws to wreak havoc on communities already disproportionately impacted by a growing system of mass incarceration.
According to Christopher Wildeman, a Cornell University sociologist and co-author of “Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality,” by the time the war on drugs was in full force, approximately 1 in 4 African American children saw their fathers be sentenced to prison before the age of 14.
At the age of six, Antonio Seay, one of Frazier’s eight children, saw his father go to prison.
“I would say the hardest aspects of (this) was teaching myself to be a man, staying out of trouble and providing for my family,” said Seay, now 31. “Ultimately it caused us to lack the childhood experience that’s pivotal to overcome statistical obstacles we unfortunately faced.”
By 2000, nearly 800,000 black men were incarcerated—a significant statistic, as it rivaled the lesser figure of approximately 600,000 black men enrolled in higher education at the time. The enforcement of sentencing laws contributed to a structured system of racial inequality, considering 80 percent of those convicted of crack trafficking offenses in 2003 were African American and 66 percent of crack users that year were white or Hispanic.
Over the last 20 years, many media myths of the crack epidemic –including crack doing greater harm to a developing fetus than cocaine—have been widely dispelled through research. Yet, the psychological damage caused to individuals by sentencing laws unbefitting their crimes continues to create negative mental health outcomes within communities of color.
A recent study conducted by researchers at U-M, Rutgers University and Texas A&M University found black men who have been incarcerated at any point in their life experience a 14 percent higher severity of depression than black men who have never been imprisoned.
Dr. Nzinga Harrison, co-founder of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, Inc. agrees that incarceration can significantly alter the course of an individual's behavioral health.
“Mental health concerns specific to black men are magnified when they are incarcerated,” she said. “They are separated from their support systems, which can aggravate existing mental health symptoms. And incarceration itself, which amounts to being caged, can lead to the development of mental health symptoms that were not previously there.”
Often, family members of those imprisoned also suffer with their own trauma that can be hard to heal.
Shayandra Williams, Frazier’s daughter, was four years old when her father was sentenced to prison. Today, she can still distinctly recall sad and shameful experiences that came with growing up without her father.
“(I remember) growing up and interacting with other kids that had access to both their parents. He wasn’t dead, and people would ask me ‘where’s your dad?’” she said. “My mom made me feel like it was something bad, so I used to always say he was out of town. I would lie, and that hurt me so bad.”
A New Hope?
Today, the politics are changing.
It is a new era of addiction with evolving social perspectives regarding substance abuse. Decades later, instead of a nation fighting a crack epidemic, America is now suffering from an opioid crisis.
What might be considered uneasy medicine to swallow for communities still enduring the racial disparities created by disproportionate mandatory drug minimums, lawmakers are shifting their focus from the heavy enforcement of sentencing laws to appropriating more funds and attention to issues surrounding substance abuse.
In February 2018, Congress passed a two-year budget designating $6 billion for mental health research and programming in response to the opioid crisis.
To advocates, increasing funding for substance abuse programming is a step in the right direction. However, it’s the allocation of those funds that will make the difference in communities already disproportionately affected.
“A general increase in funding may significantly impact communities of color for many reasons, [but] if the goal is to intentionally impact substance use disorders in these communities, funding needs to specifically focus on early intervention and support services for families affected,” Harrison said. “This includes government-supported programs to provide wider access to services that can be integrated into treatment programs, increasing the capacity of these programs and increasing support to other agencies like child protective services, work support programs and re-entry programs from jail and prison,”.
Still, in the midst of this changing political climate, slow inroads have been made in efforts toward criminal justice reform.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which decreased from 100:1 to 18:1 the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine, and abolished the five-year minimum that helped foster a 200 percent increase in the U.S. prison population since 1980.
But the measures within The Fair Sentencing Act were not retroactive.
According to Corry Hayward, founder of the criminal justice website, 100to1disparity.org, without retroactive considerations, the FSA would leave “3,000 men and women to die behind bars for non-violent drug offenses.” Hayward is also a cousin of Steffany Frazier.
The First Step Act, passed by Congress in 2018, included measures to make the Fair Sentencing Act changes retroactive--albeit eight years later. However, it did not guarantee reducing prison populations as many criminal justice advocates had hoped.
After Frazier was denied clemency in 2016, Hayward witnessed firsthand that there are no clear-cut paths for sentences commuted or pardons granted despite recent changes in the laws.
“Under the Constitution, the President has the authority to commute, or reduce, a sentence imposed upon conviction of a federal offense. However, all clemency petitions are reviewed by the justice department, then forwarded to the prosecutor and sentencing judge for their review. These are the same judges and prosecutors who originally sentenced the inmate to the unconstitutional sentence,” said Hayward.
Hayward said he believes the most effective way to make a difference for those incarcerated is to make the road to release and rehabilitation more clear.
“(People think) a simple solution is to offer parole to (these) inmates. Congress can also remove all roadblocks between an inmate’s application for clemency and the president’s desk.
Even though there is still a way to go in terms of criminal justice reform, recent changes have sprouted new for those currently incarcerated and their families.
“I do have hope, just because of the media today and everything I have been witnessing,” Williams, Steffany Frazier’s daughter, said of her father’s release. “ I have seen those that have fought are seeing outcomes and he has been fighting so hard, so I know it’s gonna happen,”
Mending the Cracks: The Life of an Advocate Behind Bars (Steffany Frazer interview)
Name: Steffany Bernard Frazier or “Brother Stet”
Age: 51 years
Hometown: Camilla, Ga.
Years of Incarceration: 24 years of life sentence
Inmate Number: 85648-020
OB: How would you describe your life leading up to your imprisonment?
SF: I would say my life was very unstable and frankly, on the edge of existence. Because being a drug dealer means you are constantly taking chances with life, believing your plans will go in accord with your minute mind. In truth, I tried to stop selling drugs several times. It was difficult being trapped in that world. And the money, the greed and the ignorance did not allow me to stop. The edge of existence for me is that leading up to my incarceration, what was and still remains to be is very painful. Right now, I live in a state of remorse based on the decisions I made that caused my family members to be hurt. I truly believe had I not been arrested, I would not be doing this interview today, because I believe I would be dead. My state of remorse does not hinder my growth and development. It only helps make me a better individual and help work with others to be better individuals while I am incarcerated.
OB: When were you sentenced, and what feelings surfaced for you when your sentence was first handed down?
SF: I was sentenced July 6, 1995 and I was very angry. I (had been) clearly informed by the federal judge that should I go to trial, I would receive a life sentence. And being very immature at 26 years old and very defiant, my response to the judge was “OK, let’s go,” because that was my mindset at that time. I was so angry because even though I was young, very immature and somewhat disrespectful, I knew the only reason I received a life sentence is because I refused to be an informant and be a snitch for the federal government. I know this because on December 28, 1994 I was approached by the prosecuting attorney and he informed me there was a certain individual he was concerned with that he wanted to speak with me about. I went on to tell him to “get out of my face” because I would not give him the satisfaction of bringing another black man to prison.’ It was then that I knew I would be getting a life sentence.
OB: Do you believe your case as well as appeals have been treated different within the criminal justice system based on your race? Why or why not?
SF: Yes. What the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act did was set into motion the war on drugs. Because the legislation created the 100:1 crack cocaine disparity, sentencing crack cocaine offenders 100 times more harshly than their powder cocaine counterparts, it was 94 percent black men and women that were being sentenced like this. Now initially Congress had beliefs they felt warranted such harsh penalties, although they did not have the hard evidence for it. But the lead in the fight for the crack cocaine disparity was the media. They sensationalized and hyperbolized it with horror stories. What the media did not say was that crack cocaine’s origin was powder cocaine. Congress used media accounts to enact the crack statute. When Congress declared a war on drugs targeting the epicenters of the black community, they were sentencing users and distributors to life sentences while the sentencing of Caucasians for using and supplying powder cocaine was not the same.
OB: How many appeals have you made?
SF: I made my direct appeal, which was affirmed in 1997. I made another appeal to the courts in 2000 when they had different laws come out, but they said (my case) was time-barred because of the Anti-Enforcement Death Penalty Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton, which barred any release for you regardless of any recent court cases once your conviction is found after one year. In 2007, when the crack amendment 706 came out, I appealed and they turned me down again in 2008 because they gave me so many points*, even though I am a first-time, nonviolent offender. Though I was eligible to lower my points, it would not lower my sentence.
When (President) Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, I put in a motion for another sentence reduction in 2012 and again they lowered my points, but I was still not eligible for a sentence reduction for second time. What they did was on each (appeal) they would increase my drug (possession) amount from when I was first sentenced to accommodate my ineligibility for a reduction. They would say you get two points (decreased) this time, but your sentence still won’t change. They would do this by conducting a fact finding by a judge to increase my drug amount even years after my initial sentencing.
*The federal sentencing guidelines operate on a point system from 1 to 43. The higher the points assigned to the crime, the longer the perpetrator has to remain in the federal penitentiary.
OB: How is that legal?
SF: It’s not legal, but the courts are allowing it. That is why I’m trying to make my voice known, because many individuals who are trying to take part in sentencing reform don’t always know how the system works when you’re fighting the system. That’s why there has to be a connection between those who are incarcerated and those in society so we can explain what’s going on.
OB: The First Step Act was recently passed. What do you believe are potentially missing components to the statute?
SF: Parole. The criminal justice system, what it’s supposed to be or its purpose and intent is to offer the ability to make individuals better citizens. But what has happened after the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was set into motion, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 became law, it (effectively) abolished federal parole. And prison just became a place of warehousing individuals. If Congress truly desired to reduce the federal prison population, it would look to legislating parole which is structured and designed to help rehabilitate people. Parole has no concern with a crime nor a sentence, and this is the best incentive tool for educating and rehabilitating incarcerated people.
OB: You have written U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who was a strong proponent for the passage of First Step Act. What’s been your primary message to her in regard to furthering criminal justice reform?
SF: My primary message in my letters to Congresswoman Waters was that she was (actually) a voice concerning the crack cocaine disparity coming into existence because (she believed) the hyperboles the media portrayed in the African American communities. So I asked her to be a voice for us today, because we are being held in prison as political prisoners by a law that does not exist anymore. I’m asking her to “use your voice to ask your constituents to join with us in eliminating this disparity”. I made it clear to her that I won’t sit quiet any longer, and even if her constituents refused to take the burden off us--at least she did her job.
OB: Let’s talk criminal justice reform in terms of programming and funding. What are the greatest mental health needs for individuals facing unfair or unequitable sentences within the criminal justice system and how should funds be allocated toward programming for these individuals?
SF: I would say those programs need to be based on the fact that when a person is incarcerated, in general it comes with life-altering decisions. And those decisions require a person to re-evaluate their life, (similar to) when a person loses their house or job. When a person is pulled from society and facing incarceration for many years, that is a mental health need. So, this money being allocated also needs to be allocated to those that are incarcerated because the (crack epidemic) was a health crisis, but it wasn’t treated like a crisis. It was treated like a war. And once you declare war, (prison) time was given as if it was a war. So that’s a mental health situation in itself.
OB: How has both your sentence and your incarcerations affected your relationships, particularly with family and friends?
SF: I mainly hurt because they hurt. They know that I’m strong, but they don't understand the system. They’re not understanding the system, particularly my children, they continue to ask ‘why are they doing this?’ But they don’t understand that a war was declared, and when someone declares war on you, they don’t intend to let you go that easy. I understand the system, and by understanding it I know I won’t just be let out even though I know I am being unjustly treated. I still handle it with a smile and try to make the best of the situation.
OB: I spoke with your daughter, Shayandra, and asked her if she has hope that you will receive clemency or at least a lesser sentence. She said she does have hope because you have been fighting for so long and so hard, and for people who have done that, she’s seen changes happened. Do you agree with her?
SF: I agree with her 100% on that. My family is more so, ‘we’re concerned about you.’ But I told them I am one individual and I know thousands affected like me, and I want to become a voice for them. So, I ask them to just support me. I say a finger can do only one thing, and that’s touch, but a fist can do a whole lot of damage. When I ask brothers and sisters to join me, I will petition Congress and am leading the charge because they can’t discriminate and say I had this kind of conduct before I was incarcerated or I was this type of person in prison. I have an outstanding record in prison and I didn’t have a record before I went to prison. So I say stand with me and I will represent y’all. And one day they will have to let me go, that I have no doubt about.
OB: What is your biggest goal as an advocate of drug sentencing reform? What is the change you would like to see in your lifetime?
SF: My biggest goal as an advocate is to use my voice to help in regards of putting the current situation into the light of truth and exposure. That the criminal justice system will one day treat all drug offenders fairly without any form of discrimination or bias. And we should not sentence one individual one way and another individual with the same charge another way based on the color of his skin. The only way that can be done is by continuing to be a voice. Now, I may have a determination and desire to help be a voice and instill advice to those lawmakers because I have bettered my life and I understand the system. And even with those who help in prison and citizen reform, I hope to become a voice where they will have to work with us, because they mean well but don’t understand the system like us. You have to know the system to get the results that you believe that you would get.