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United States of America v. Willie Zimmerman

June 19, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge:

On November 22, 2011, I sentenced Willie Zimmerman to time-served (19 days in custody) and a three-year term of supervised release after his conviction, pursuant to a guilty plea, of a single count of distribution of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) & 841(b)(1)(C). This sentence was a substantial variance from the applicable range calculated pursuant to the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines, which was approximately four to five years in prison. I explained the reasons for the sentence at the time it was imposed, and I elaborate upon them here.

A. The Offense

The case against Willie Zimmerman arose out of a two-year investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations into narcotics trafficking in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. On five occasions, Zimmerman sold a total of 35.3 grams of crack cocaine to a person who was cooperating with the investigation.*fn1 He was not involved in any violence.

Zimmerman was arrested on July 1, 2010. He pled guilty on October 6, 2010, to distributing crack cocaine. His advisory Guidelines range was 46--57 months.

B. Zimmerman's History

Zimmerman is now 25 years old. He was 21 years old at the time of the first crack transaction charged in the case, and had turned 23 by the time of the last one. He has lived all his life at the same address in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His father, a maintenance worker, died when Zimmerman was 10 years old. He and his sister, who is now 28, were raised after that by their mother, and still live with her. The mother, now a cook at a public school in Brooklyn, struggled financially but provided for her children.

After his father's death, Zimmerman had problems with discipline in school. The school authorities referred him to a psychologist, who Zimmerman visited regularly for about two years.

Beginning at age 12 and lasting until his arrest in this case in 2010, Zimmerman smoked marijuana on and off. By age 17, he smoked it five or six times per day. He experimented with other drugs, including phencyclidine ("PCP"), ecstasy, heroin and cocaine. At the time of his arrest in this case, he drank from half a pint to a pint of cognac daily.

The discipline problems that began when his father died continued, and Zimmerman was expelled from Boys and Girls High School. Raised as a member of the local Baptist church, he left the church and began hanging out in the streets. To earn money, he began the street-level drug dealing that got him arrested in this case.

C. The First Adjournment of Sentence

Defendants are almost always on their best behavior between pleading guilty and getting sentenced. So it was no surprise to me that Zimmerman, who was fortunate enough to make bail less than three weeks after his arrest, returned to his church and began taking classes toward receiving his GED in the run-up to his original sentencing date. Nonetheless, a letter I received from his pastor, which remarked not only on Zimmerman's reinstatement as a church member but also on a newly-demonstrated humility and self-awareness, suggested genuine promise in him. There were other indicia that Zimmerman, who has very strong family support from his mother and sister, was maturing. Through the church, for example, he was speaking to young children, urging them to stay in school. His sister became pregnant, and Zimmerman realized she would need his help because the father of her child is serving a long prison term in an upstate prison.

The case was first called for sentencing on February 11, 2011. Defense counsel's sentencing submission requested a 46-month term of incarceration, i.e., a sentence at the bottom of the advisory range. It emphasized the positive signs discussed above, and quoted the pastor's statement that "[t]here is great potential in this young man who realizes he has made mistakes."

Crack has been the scourge of many of our city's neighborhoods for a quarter-century. Selling it is a serious crime, and for all of those 25 years the principal currency of punishment in our system has been years in prison. As a result, even after Congress blunted the infamous 100:1 ratio (which punished offenses involving a single gram of crack the same as offenses involving 100 grams of powder cocaine), Zimmerman still faced an advisory prison range of approximately four to five years for selling less than an ounce and a half of crack.

On the other hand, Zimmerman was showing a spark of hope that a four-year prison term would threaten to snuff out. His lawyer wrote that Zimmerman had "a biography that Your Honor and I have heard too often. Another young man seemingly doomed to end up in prison." There was a palpable risk that sending him to prison for 46 months would simply start a cycle of incarceration and release that would repeat itself throughout Zimmerman's adult life.

Rather than sentence Zimmerman on February 11, 2011, I asked him if he wanted a chance to earn an opportunity for leniency by participating in this district's Special Options Service ("SOS") Program. Set forth below is our Pretrial Services Agency's description of that program:

Program Eligibility: Primarily designed to work with non-violent juvenile and young adult defendants up to the age of twenty-four; special consideration may be made for older individuals on a case by case basis. Defendants cannot have a violent criminal history or lengthy criminal record. Appropriate candidates may have an existence of significant childhood trauma (rape, molestation, child abuse, loss of a parent, drug or mental health issues, etc.).

Individuals are not cited as a danger to the community, and must be willing to participate in the program and abide by the conditions imposed.

Services Provided: Educational and Vocational referrals, Mental Health and Drug treatment referrals. Individual meetings with defendants at least once weekly to discuss and promote life skills such as: setting and attaining short terms goals, health & hygiene, stress management, and the defendant's progress in educational or vocational programs. Defendants are also required to abide by a curfew as set by Pretrial Services in an effort to reduce the risk of further criminal activity.

How The Program Works: Generally at the first meeting between the Pretrial Services Officer and the defendant, a determination as to the needs of the defendant is ascertained.

Along with those determined needs combined with the personal interests of the defendant, appropriate programs are designed to help participants attain goals that have been set jointly by the defendant and the Pretrial Services Officer.

Zimmerman wanted the opportunity, and Amina Adossa-Ali, the Pretrial Services Officer who runs the SOS Program, agreed to supervise him.

D. Zimmerman's Supervision in the SOS Program

There ensued more than nine months of intensive supervision by Officer Adossa-Ali. I have reviewed her weekly reports, which occupy 19 single-spaced typewritten pages, and ...

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