Gwen Levi walks with her head held high down a busy section of downtown Baltimore. The 77-year-old grandmother is headed for her job at the local library. Levi's life lately is a far cry from where she was just a few years ago, behind bars in federal prison, after being charged with selling heroin.
"I knew that I had to change," Levi said. "What do you have to change? You have to do new things and try new things."
In 2006, a federal judge in Maryland found Levi guilty of dealing heroin. She was sentenced to 400 months in prison.
"To me, at the age I was, it was life. It meant that I was supposed to be 93 when I got released," she recalled.
That, though, is how Levi's story became just one in the renewed national debate over mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
"The individual is not looked at. It's just a blanket case," Levi said about minimum sentencing requirements.
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Mandatory minimum sentences are in place in nearly every state in the U.S. Depending on the crime committed, if a person is found guilty there are minimum sentencing requirements that dictate to a judge how long they must sentence a person to jail. With mandatory minimum sentences, judges are required to give a minimum number of months or years as jail time, no matter the other circumstances.
"It takes the hope away and the promise of better things to come while you're inside," Levi added.
Over the last few years, there's been a renewed push nationwide to reform some mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. Many advocates say the laws often don't take into account an individual's involvement in a particular crime or their criminal history — or lack thereof.
"One size fits all rarely fits all. Every case is unique and every person is unique. Circumstances in one case may be different than another," said Molly Gill, who serves as the vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM.
Gill says mandatory minimum sentences often do little to prevent crimes from occurring.
"We're not safer when we put everyone in prison indiscriminately. We need to be wise about prison resources we use, who we send to prison and how long they stay," she added. "What we know is mandatory minimums don't make these crimes go away. We've had mandatory minimums for drugs and guns and all kinds of other crimes. And they don't go away."
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Over the last decade, 37 states have either repealed mandatory sentencing guidelines or have expanded judicial discretion. That, often times, gives judges more leeway when sentencing someone to jail time.
But proponents of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements say the guidelines often help ensure the rights of crime victims.
"In some cases, it is simply not justice to let people out with a light sentence for a major crime, like murder or rape," said Kent Scheidegger with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
"Sometimes, the sentences a person gets depend more on which judge he draws than what he did. And that is not just and sometimes results in excessively lenient sentences," Scheidegger added.
As for Levi, lung cancer and a nonviolent declaration from the Justice Department lead to her early release in February. She is now spending her days with her grandkids — and pushing for change against some the very same laws that landed her behind bars in the first place.
"Making sure that discretionary power, that power of second chances is not taken away," Levi said. "It's given and expanded."
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