The Mostly Invisible Catastrophe
Brenda Valencia, a nineteen-year-old with no history of drug use or criminal behavior, made a terrible mistake in 1991. She gave a ride to her roommate's stepmother, a cocaine dealer. She drove the woman to the West Palm Beach, Florida, home of a man who turned out to be another dealer. Valencia remembers being impressed by the spacious, luxurious house. She watched the World Series on TV with the daughter of the man who lived there, and he and her passenger went outside to talk. The phone rang, and Valencia picked it up. Recalled Valencia, "the guy on the end of the line said,'Who's this?' I told him and asked if I could take a message. He said, 'Yes, tell him to beep me.' There was nothing said about money or drugs. Just, can I take a message?" But the prosecution would later argue that this phone call helped prove that Brenda Valencia was part of a conspiracy and that her passenger had picked up some money at the home with Valencia's help. Swept up in a raid, Valencia was sentenced to the mandatory minimum. "That's the first thing my lawyer told me," she recalls, "the mandatory minimum, that I couldn't get less than twelve years, seven months. I knew I deserved punishment for being stupid. But twelve years, seven months? I couldn't believe it. I tried to tell them, 'Look at my bank account. I'm not a drug dealer. I'm a student, just a regular person.'"
Although her case was Kafkaesque, it was also terrifyingly routine. In only one respect was it unique: it attracted plenty of attention, probably because U.S. District Court Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr., forced to pronounce the zero-tolerance sentence predetermined by law, called that sentence "absurd" and "an insult to justice." Editorials blasted away at the rigidity of the statute that prevented Gonzalez from giving Valencia probation and a stern lecture. But eventually the media moved on. Valencia served the full sentence.
--Ivan G. Goldman
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