Jehu Richardson learned about injustice and false incarceration at a very young age. When he was a child in Liberia, Jehu’s grandfather, who was president of the country at the time, was assassinated and other members of his family were unjustly imprisoned. Five-year-old Jehu never could have imagined that long after he and his family had sought refuge in White Plains, New York, a similar fate would pursue him under the guise of the infamous, draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDL).
The RDL mandate harsh, inhumanely long sentences for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and destroying tens of thousands of lives. A young husband, father, and ex-marine, Jehu found that even his extraordinary determination and commitment to his family could not prevent his life from being forever altered by the racist implementation of these laws.
Years after Jehu’s family had been split up by his mother’s losing a battle with breast cancer, his father’s returning to Liberia and his siblings being sent to live with family members, he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. Jehu had found something he was good at, but his future as a Marine was cut short when a blow suffered during training inflamed an older shoulder injury.
Although disappointed, Jehu and his wife remained in North Carolina after his discharge. When they learned they were expecting their first child, he started working several jobs to provide a good life for his family. Things were starting to come together when Jehu met a young man whom he would partner with in an entertainment company venture. This acquaintance would take Jehu’s life on yet another unforeseen turn.
“Right from the beginning, I sensed some questionable activity,” Jay confessed. “A young black man with an abundance of surplus cash and no real profession?” But he allowed his desire to be a good provider and the fact that he never participated in any illegal activity to cloud his judgment, and continued to work with the man.
The scene was being set for Jehu to make what he considers the single worst decision of his life. A road trip to New York, where he’d agreed to split gas and toll costs with his business partner, would go horribly awry when he was on his way back to his wife. After a celebratory weekend with a friend who’d just graduated from law school, Jehu picked up his acquaintance to head home. As they approached the George Washington Bridge, Jehu came upon a roadblock and was asked to pull over. The officer told them that they were looking for looters in the area and Jehu insisted that he was not involved. The officer asked to search his car and he told them no. In the blink of an eye, Jehu was being handcuffed. His entire world began crumbling around him and there was no one willing to believe that he’d never before seen the eight ounces of cocaine found in the trunk.
Jehu was sentenced to 3 years to life in prison. After 18 months he was released to a work program (the acquaintance also received the same sentence even with the admission that the drugs were his and Jehu had no knowledge of them). As a result of biased, unfair laws, during his time behind bars, Jehu missed his daughter’s first steps and could not help her blow out the candle on her first birthday.
Yet, with the same discipline he learned as a Marine, Jehu refused to give up on his future. No extenuating circumstances had been taken into consideration: not the fact that he had served this country well, or the fact that he had no prior record. The Rockefeller Drug Laws made sure of that. He would endure attempts to “rehabilitate” him, would have to falsely admit that he was addicted to drugs, and would be on parole for the rest of his life, just to be able to go home.
Jehu now lives in New York with his wife and his daughters, where he was entrusted to run a million dollar business, but still has to take several hours out of his month to check in with a parole officer. It has been over three years since his release from prison, and he’s not had as much as a speeding ticket. Yet he needs permission to take his daughter to Disney World.
“As crazy as it sounds, the experience has made me a much better person. I am focused, dedicated and most importantly very wary of the situations I put myself into,” he says.
Jehu’s story is a human example of the destruction wreaked by the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The laws cause families to suffer needlessly and squander away the opportunities of young black men, most with clean pasts and bright futures.
The Real Reform New York Coalition, of which the Drug Policy Alliance is a leading member, works to undo the damage that 32 years of Rockefeller Drug Laws have impressed upon society. Real Reform New York is committed to reducing sentences, restoring judicial discretion, delivering retroactive sentencing relief and expanding drug treatment programs. For more information, please visit www.realreformny.org.
Teri Weefur is the Deputy Web Coordinator of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization working to end the war on drugs.