Rethinking The 'Lifer Law'

JeDonna Young's controversial drug conviction has Michigan officials rethinking mandatory minimums

Twenty years ago, JeDonna Young was sent to prison for life with no hope of parole. She didn't murder anyone. She didn't commit a violent crime. As 60 Minutes II Anchor Dan Rather reports, JeDonna Young was given a life sentence because police found her boyfriend's drugs in her car.

She was sentenced under a Michigan law that was intended to remove drug dealers from the streets by imposing mandatory life sentences. It was never intended to lock up first offenders like JeDonna Young. She was one of the first people convicted under that law and, two decades later, her story helped persuade state officials to rewrite it.

Now, Michigan's change of heart has changed JeDonna Young's life.

"I just said 'Thank you, God.' I am a blessed woman to be able to be here today," says JeDonna.

JeDonna Young was blessed with freedom as she rode into the Detroit neighborhood she hadn't seen since 1978. Less than an hour after being released from prison, she got a warm homecoming. Tears from family and friends and smiles for the camera captured JeDonna's first taste of freedom in more than two decades.

There was a lot to digest about the outside world. The last time JeDonna had been home she was 24, and life was drastically different. She marvels over the changes, like voice mail, cellular phones, and most of all, her grown-up son Deloneo, who was a child when JeDonna went to prison.

A graduate of junior college, JeDonna had never even been arrested. But JeDonna had fallen in with a bad crowd. She had been dating 52-year-old James Gulley, a free-spending businessman who owned a car wash and gave her gifts like a new Cadillac. But what she didn't know was that they were paid for with drug money.

"I still say this today, there was no reason for him to have been [selling drugs]. I know he had a couple of businesses that were very profitable, or thought were profitable," says JeDonna.

One day, Gulley asked JeDonna to help him run some errands, and she readily agreed to drive him. Before they left, Gulley asked her to put some bags in the car. One of them, to JeDonna's surprise, contained nearly three pounds of high-quality heroin. Police had been investigating Gulley for months, and she learned that the hard way when police pulled them over a few blocks away.

"And they jump out with guns, and they tell us to get out of the car," JeDonna remembers. "And there was one officer, he came to me, he says 'whose drugs are these?' And I'm like 'what?' He says 'whose drugs are these?' They put me in one car, and they put him in another car. We sat there, and they drove off. And the nightmare began."

JeDonna learned one more difficult lesson that night about something called the "650 lifer law." It was a one-strike-and-you're-out law aimed at drug kingpins: anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams (one and a half pounds) of narcotics must be sentenced to life in prisowithout parole.

Even though JeDonna had no criminal record and swore she knew nothing about the drugs in her car, she and Gulley became the first people sentenced under the new law. But they certainly weren't the last.

The law sent more than 200 people to prison for life with no hope of parole. It was the toughest drug law in the country, much tougher than federal drug laws.

But has it worked? This Michigan law was supposed to catch the big fish of the drug trade, but it seems to have netted mostly small fry. About 85 percent of those convicted had no prior prison records. Seven of those sent to prison for the rest of their lives were teenagers.

"I'm not arguing that anyone was an angel. I'm arguing that the punishment doesn't fit the crime, or the individual. It's a one-size-fits-all penalty," says Laura Sager, head of a Michigan group called Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences (FAMMS).

She says the "650 lifer law" has put away people who had little or no role in the drug trade. People like David Lester, whose girlfriend accused him of being her drug supplier, a charge he denies. Or Mindy Brass, a California businesswoman convicted of helping an acquaintance buy cocaine. Or David Ryan, an addict convicted of selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.

"The law sweeps up low-level mules, addicts, first-time offenders, and gives them the same long sentences as someone who may have a much larger role in the drug trade," says Sager. "Interestingly enough, the higher you are in the drug trade the more likely you're going to be able to give information to prosecutors for lighter sentences, the more likely you're able to employ very good defense counsel."

For instance, a man by the name of Timothy Allen Dick was arrested the same month as JeDonna, with more than 650 grams of cocaine. But he cooperated with federal prosecutors, testified against others, and served two years in jail. Now known simply as Tim Allen, he went on to a successful career in movies and television. JeDonna was not able to make that kind of deal.

Instead of accepting prison, JeDonna worked. She became a paralegal and earned a bachelor's degree while she struggled with the fact that her son was growing up without her.

Her little boy, Deloneo, is now a parent himself, the father of a 6-year-old girl. He can't forget visiting day in prison.

"They were, they were sad," Deloneo recalls. "Leaving her there. That was the worst of it. The last maybe five, six years, I didn't go visit my mother at all. Visiting her was lovely but when that door closed, and she was still in there and we were outside, me and my grandmother, it's just something unbearable."

JeDonna tried to get her conviction overturned. A sympathetic federal appeals court said that giving her a life sentence was like "springing a tiger trap on a sick kitten." But the court turned down her appeal, ruling that heroin dealing iany quantity was too serious an offense.

"The potential for this drug to get into hands and spread throughout the streets and cause death in our community is huge," says Michigan's Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. "And if people are moving this amount of drugs, they're not a casual person. First-time offender doesn't necessarily mean first time. It's the first time they got caught and convicted."

Bouchard, who served eight years as a state senator, insists the law that sent JeDonna to prison for life has worked simply because of the message it sends to drug dealers.

Chief Circuit Court Judge Michael Sapala has a different view. He believes the "650 lifer law" is a failure.

"We come from a system, don't we, where we are not supposed to punish people on the basis of suspicion, on the basis of the belief that they may have committed other offenses?" Sapala asks. "My goodness, talk about a slippery slope. You are punished, you are sentenced based upon proven conduct."

Most big drug cases, Judge Sapala says, get transferred to federal court, ultimately leaving defendants like JeDonna to face the "650 lifer law" in Michigan State Court.

That's one reason why state legislators began to wonder if the law should be changed. Last summer, they voted to allow parole after 15 years in prison. In January, JeDonna Young went before the State Parole Board and became the first "650 lifer" to win early release.

"I've applied to school. I'm waiting on that. Hopefully, I'll be able to find financial assistance. And I don't have a problem, because if I have to work at McDonald's in the day, Burger King at night, and Wendy's on the weekends, I'm fine with that," says JeDonna.