Reefer Madness: Bush Pardons Hip-Hop Artist

Forté was dealt harsh sentence under draconian drug law

John Forté
John Forté

President George W. Bush on Nov. 24 granted pardons to 14 prisoners and commutations for two offenders – including hip-hop artist John Forté, convicted of cocaine possession in federal court in Hous­ton in 2001 and handed a 14-year prison term under mandatory-minimum sentencing. The decision to release Forté was applauded by drug-law reformers who have long argued that man-min sentences are bad policy and do nothing to curb drug use and trafficking. "We certainly are thrilled to see him get out, because his sentence was too long," Families Against Mandatory Minimums staff attorney Molly Gill told ABC News. Indeed, roughly half of the federal prison population is doing time for drug offenses.

Forté studied violin at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy before meeting up with Lauryn Hill in the early 1990s and becoming a part of the Refugee Camp. Forté wrote two songs for the Fugees' 1996 album, The Score, and later toured with Wyclef Jean. Sales of his first solo effort, Poly Sci, were dismal, and Columbia, who'd given him the solo deal, dropped him. Forté was financially stressed and depressed and ended up living for a time at the Martha's Vineyard compound of Carly Simon, whose son, Ben Taylor, was a friend. Forté tried to make ends meet, in part by taking a gig spinning records at a Manhattan club, he told Rolling Stone in 2002. It was there that he met 35-year-old alleged drug dealer Chris Thompson, who told Forté he needed female couriers to transport some "stuff," Forté told the magazine.

In 2000, Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Houston (tipped by Harlingen Police) stopped at the airport a pair of women Forté presumably recruited for Thompson. Inside their bags narco agents found 30 8-by-10 freezer packages of liquid cocaine. The women rolled and reportedly phoned Forté, who told them to fly to Newark. Forté was busted the next day as he loaded the bags into a taxicab and charged under federal law with conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Forté maintains that he had no idea there were drugs in the bags, which he thought contained cash. Thompson was never charged and instead took the stand against Forté. In the end, Forté was found not guilty of conspiracy but was nonetheless handed a 14-year man-min for possession. He had no criminal record. Had he not received clemency from Bush, Forté would not be released until 2013.

Simon put up a substantial portion of Forté's original $650,000 bond and has continued to help with his legal bills. She told Rolling Stone that the federal man-min sentencing scheme had taken power from judges to make individualized sentencing determinations. "I think the judge in John's case was extremely frustrated by having to go by them and likely would have given John a much lesser sentence if it wasn't for the mandatory minimums," she said. Simon has lobbied for Forté's release, as has Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch – a fairly prolific singer-songwriter who in 2006 used his political clout to help Atlanta music producer Dallas Austin avoid a prison term in Dubai after he was convicted of drug possession – who wrote to Bush in January 2007 urging Forté's release. "Now is the perfect opportunity for John to be given the chance to provide positive benefits to society through his considerable musical talents," he wrote.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the federal sentencing guidelines should be considered advisory (a position they reiterated in a pair of cases in 2007), returning a measure of discretion to sentencing judges, the man-min scheme did effectively strip from federal judges any ability to take into consideration an individual defendant's situation when making sentencing decisions. The man-min has been particularly devastating for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders – a problem seen particularly in the much reviled 100-to-1 sentencing disparity in crack-to-powder cocaine offenses. (Possession of just 5 grams of crack nets a five-year sentence, but it would take possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to secure that same five years, even though the two drugs are, essentially, identical. The disparity, codified at the height of public concern about the scourge of crack, has been particularly devastating for minority defendants. The U.S. Sentencing Commis­sion last year finally did away with the crack-to-powder disparity.) While the man-min drug sentences were envisioned as a tool to punish high-level dealers and traffickers, the so-called "kingpins" of the trade, the effect has been quite different, with the majority of those caught up in the system and sentenced under the scheme lower-level dealers and users, who have no leverage to avoid the hammer of the system – as did, apparently, Thompson, the alleged dealer in Forté's case.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums applauded Bush's decision to release Forté, who is a FAMM member. Bush's actions "highlight an underlying problem with sentencing policy – the systemic injustice caused by mandatory minimum sentences," said Julie Stewart, FAMM president and founder, in a press statement. "One-size-fits-all mandatory sentencing laws undermine the fundamental principle that punishment should fit the crime and the individual offender, and they are costly to administer and ineffective at reducing drug usage. We hope that the incoming administration and Congress will make federal sentencing reform a high priority."

Forté is scheduled to be released Dec. 22.

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John Forté, FAMM, Julie Stewart, Molly Gill, Orrin Hatch, John Forte, Reefer Madness, Carly Simon, mandatory minimums, George W. Bush, drug war

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