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America Should Aim For Truth – And Justice – In Drug Sentencing

March 25, 2008


By Jeffrey Sewell

As I sat in the Matthew Perry Federal Court House earlier this month watching my friend, Thomas Ravenel, receive his sentence on federal drug charges, I was reminded of a scene from the Academy Award-winning film, Traffic.

One of the most unflinching, unapologetic and controversial motion pictures ever made, Traffic explores America’s “War on Drugs” from multiple vantage points, including that of fictitious American Drug Czar Robert Wakefield.

“If there is a war on drugs,” Wakefield says during the movie’s climactic scene, “Then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”

Sitting calmly behind the defendant’s table in that same courtroom was a man I have come to know as family.

He was – and is – a good man, a successful man, a man whose goodness and success has created opportunity and prosperity for thousands of South Carolinians. And a man whose passionate advocacy of our nation’s founding fiscal conservative principles was poised to create additional opportunity and prosperity for thousands – perhaps millions – of us living in a state saddled with high unemployment, low income levels and a diminished competitive position in an increasingly competitive world.

But my friend – who also happens to be our former State Treasurer – had a secret habit.

His recreational use of cocaine not only violated our laws, it also violated the public trust we placed in him.

Perhaps better than anyone else, Thomas Ravenel knows this. That’s why he cooperated fully and truthfully with the authorities who came to know of his secret. It’s why he took immediate and decisive steps to receive the treatment he needed to cure him of his admitted addiction. It’s why he willingly accepted a sentence that many – including me – felt was too harsh and too motivated by the media’s definition of “equality,” a definition at odds with mitigating circumstances acknowledged not only by his attorneys, but by the men prosecuting him. And it’s why he’s asked to begin serving his sentence now, rather than delay it in the hopes of receiving leniency.

Through every step of his public ordeal, Thomas Ravenel has proven that his words “I not only want to apologize, I want to make amends,” have been accompanied by a genuine commitment to rehabilitate himself and restore the public confidence he has lost.

But no matter what you think of Thomas Ravenel or the sentence he received, consider these facts from a recent non-partisan Pew Center study:

• State and federal authorities currently spend $55 billion a year to incarcerate approximately 2.3 million Americans – the highest percentage in the world.

• Government spending on incarceration – adjusted for inflation – has increased by 127% over the past two decades. By comparison, higher education costs have only increased by 21%.

• Non-violent offenders – who represent about half of all incarcerated American adults – would be just as likely to avoid repeat offenses if given less-expensive punishments like mandatory drug counseling, electronic monitoring or house arrest.

Simply put, for all the talk of “justice” and “equality” that accompanied news of Ravenel’s sentencing, the truth is that as a society we are avoiding the underlying issue here – the increasing costs and proven ineffectiveness of locking up first time, non-violent offenders.

Even assuming Ravenel hadn’t admitted his responsibility, cooperated fully with authorities or voluntarily sought treatment for his drug use, he likely would still have been eligible for Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) and avoided jail time had he faced state charges. Why wasn’t he? In fact, Judge Joseph F. Anderson acknowledged in Ravenel’s sentencing hearing that it was “rare to have powder cocaine cases in the federal court system.”

“Ravenel is a good example of a defendant likely to mend his ways and become a contributing member of society again – even without a jail sentence,” a recent editorial by the Rock Hill Herald stated. “Taxpayers will spend about $15,000 a year to house and feed Ravenel in a federal prison. We question whether that is money well spent.”

It’s easy to be tough on crime, to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” It’s also easy to allow the media to dictate the parameters of justice as they see fit. What’s more difficult is to acknowledge that while popular and politically-expedient, such remedies do not always serve the individual to be “rehabilitated” or the society to be “protected.”

Our goal as a nation should be not only truth – but justice – in sentencing. In the case of Thomas Ravenel, justice clearly was not served.

Mr. Sewell is the principal consultant of Sewell Consultancy, a political consulting firm in Lexington County. He is also the former campaign manager to Ravenel for Treasurer and co-owner of

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2008 8:07 PM

    My daughter is a Wofford Graduate, school teacher, teacher at the FBC of Chesnee. Mother of 2 wonderful children who will be attending Wofford in 2008 and 2009. She was sentenced for 15 years and he only gets 10 months????? something is wrong with the court sentencing. I realize the Fed and state sentencing guidelines are different, but shouldn’t be that different.

  2. March 25, 2008 9:00 PM

    The following is an excerpt from “the 100 Year war on reason” by yours truly… You can read the article in it’s entirety at:

    What does the future hold for an America trapped in a 100+ year war on drugs and facing the reality that we have never even been close to winning? How many futures have been lost or compromised by the tendency of the judiciary to throw the harshest sentences at non-violent crimes and a penal system that plays favorites with murderers, rapists and pedophiles?

    History has given us all the lessons we should require on this subject. The criminalization of alcohol created the highest crime and murder rates known to this country until the cartels and gangs made addictive commodities their stock in trade. Now with the National Security threatened by the liquidity of such commodities and the attraction of terrorists to such revenue streams, the war on drugs must be ended. It is time to control the commodities and the proceeds in the only manner possible. By legalizing the sale and distribution of these commodities through state controlled and federally monitored retailers and taxing these commodities 300% or more. I have little doubt that the United States of America could see crime rates drop as much as 50%, possibly more within one year, and I would also expect the same rate of decrease in the national murder rate within a mere matter of months.

    The men and woman who represent us and our individual states owe it to each constituent to have an honest debate about this issue and to shed the ignorance and fear that has cost so many Americans their lives and the freedom of so many citizens for over 100 years and counting.

  3. Larry Donaldson permalink
    March 25, 2008 9:12 PM

    It is unfortunate that our government would rather put people with drug problems in jail then in rehab. Rand did a study on what would be more cost effective and found that treatment and legalization is far less costly then jail. I suppose our government just likes taking our tax money and throwing it away.

  4. Darrell Wallace permalink
    March 25, 2008 9:20 PM

    It seems that America since 1950 (I know I was there though young) has been in a no win war of many different kinds. North Korea is still Communistic, Viet Nam is still in about the same situation as when we were there, Iraq will never be actually won. The war on poverty is lost and now the war on drugs has been a failure.
    Our leaders talk a good talk but they don’t know how to win. What a sad commentary on such as once was a great nation. These wars could have been won! We had all the tools, but there was a reluctance to use them.
    The people have not lost the will to win, we just can’t find leadership that has the same outlook.
    The answer? The Nation that forgets God will be turned into Hell. America is reaping what the leadership has sown. May God have mercy on us!

  5. Handy permalink
    March 25, 2008 11:43 PM

    I agree with your editorial…thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down on paper.

  6. Greenville Dan permalink
    March 25, 2008 11:44 PM

    This has been a sad story from front to back. I pray these guys do their time peacefully, and then re-enter society…as good and honorable men.

  7. March 26, 2008 5:14 PM

    My daughter was just released from prison and is having a tough time reaclimating to society. There are so many hurdles and expenses getting one’s life back in order. The sentence goes past the incarceration. he got off due to fame and name as usual. Instead he should have paid a hefty sentence as a message to those who are considering a future in abusive behaviour.

  8. Charlotte Kelly permalink
    March 26, 2008 8:42 PM

    1) To whom much is given, much is expected. It was no small matter when Rush Limbaugh turned up on drugs and it is no small matter when this fair-haired scion of South Carolina politics lets down everyone who hears his sad and pitiful tale. (I was expecting violins). 2) Where have you been? The issue of fairness in drug sentencing has been around for 10-20 years. Is it only important now that one of yours has been affected? I know at least some element of the American public is tired of all the pretenders who participate in and support the crooked regimes in place in small towns, big cities and states all over American. If you ask me, it is a good thing when you feel what the other guy has gone through for years.

    As to the war on drugs, you can probably look to the same crowd. Drugs bring too much money to be ignored by the ones who love it most.

  9. MW Collins permalink
    March 27, 2008 2:58 PM

    I’ve believed for 30 yrs now, my entire adult life, that all “drugs” should be de-criminalized at the very least. Sadly I’ve come to believe that those who profit the most from keeping some substances illegal are far more determined to keep them that way than the masses are willing to confront the reality of the War On Drugs.
    Maybe locking up people like Ravenel will wake more lawmakers up.

  10. Olivia permalink
    March 28, 2008 7:05 AM

    My husband will be sentenced in a couple of days. He too is a good father, a good man, a good husband. I cry myself to sleep not knowing what I am going to do being left to raise my 5 Childeren. 10 Years is the mandatory minimum for his crime. Just for talking about something that never even happened. Conspiricy is what the crime is. 10 Years. But he has been out for 6 years on bail and has been a hardworking tax payer that takes his kids to school and picks them up and takes them to wrestling practice. Devoting and appriciating his family and the government knows this but they would rather put him away. And create a bigger problem a single mother and 5 kids fatherless. My husband also accepted resposability and niether him nor myself were asking that he not be punished but just what would be fair and just. Something is seriously wrong. I don’t understand why predetors that can hurt childeren or people can have second chances or do less time. I wish somebody could explain this to my childeren.

  11. March 28, 2008 8:14 PM

    Contrary to popular politico opinion I have long thought that the war on drugs is less than a joke. Having a good friend suffer the consequences of such is again an eye opener.

    Secure our borders now, stop drugs and you stop the illegal’s and the drugs they mule. Again if we cannot do this we cannot stop a nuke from driving right downtown to you city and detonating, common sense approach folks.

    I am not advocating legalizing current illegal drugs, this I struggle with, and would it cause us more problems? I don’t know the answer to this but I do know our current system of dealing with the issue has major flaws.

  12. nate permalink
    May 10, 2008 4:18 AM

    Cry me a river. There are thousands of people without the same family name, money, and political clout that Mr. Ravenel enjoys, who are rotting in prison for decades. These are people who committed the same type of crime that Mr. Ravenel was found guilty of. It’s amazing that conservative types all of a sudden discover the inanity that is our sentencing process – but not when the victims are poor and black, or white and working class – but only when it’s one of the privileged that finally have to deal with the system.

  13. jason permalink
    July 1, 2008 12:25 AM

    I am a first time offender who has been arrested for trafficking cocaine. I am facing 25 years in jail and i have never been arrested and I cooperated with the police from the start. Ravenel had twice as much cocaine as I was caught with and he is only doing 10 months. It doesnt matter if Im white or black, everyone deserves to be treated the same. Somebody has to do something about this, it is ruining millions of lives!

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