WHEN I served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia in the mid-1990s, my office aggressively prosecuted dangerous criminals and sought life sentences for drug traffickers who used violence to achieve their ends.
I took seriously the awesome authority
I was given to bring criminal charges on behalf of the U.S. government, and my top priority was to keep the communities in my jurisdiction safe.
There were times, however, when I found myself confronted with a low-level drug offender who faced a lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentence for reasons that seemed arbitrary at best.
I remember one case when an assistant U.S. attorney in my office told me about a defendant whom I will call Brian.
Unlike many of the drug defendants we prosecuted, Brian was in college and had a wife and young daughter. He had lost his football scholarship after sustaining a knee injury and turned to selling drugs to support his education and family.
The assistant U.S. attorney was uncomfortable with the sentence Brian was facing under the federal mandatory minimums regime, which I recall was in the 10-year range, and sought my approval for some type of alternative approach.
After meeting with Brian personally, I too was troubled that the pending indictment would require a sentence that was inappropriate, so I agreed to dismiss the federal charges in exchange for a guilty plea in state court.
I remember telling Brian that I was cutting him a big break and that I hoped he used the opportunity wisely.
As the years passed, I wondered what had happened to him.
In 2010, I received an email from Brian.
He told me he had been given probation on the state drug charge, which enabled him to finish college and begin a business career. He proudly shared that he and his wife were still married and now had three children.