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‘White Boy Rick’ Shines A Needed Spotlight On Problems With Mandatory Minimums


“White Boy Rick” tells the early story of drug dealer and occasional FBI informant Richard Wershe Jr. “Rick” grew up in Detroit in the 1980s with his low-level gun-dealing father and his drug-abusing sister, Dawn. The movie depicts young Rick navigating a rough upbringing in a bad neighborhood by getting involved in gangs, and eventually selling a lot of drugs to earn money.

The movie covers his life from age 14 to 18, the four years he spent as a criminal, federal informant, eventual drug kingpin, and finally a convict. The first two acts of the film offer a somewhat hopeful glimpse at the teen’s life.

His family is full of dysfunction, but they’re highly likeable. His father is misguided, but seems to have his son’s best interest in mind. Rick is dealing drugs, sure, but he’s a goofy kid in a bad neighborhood who likes girls and oversized gold jewelry. He’s hardly painted as a bad guy.

Trouble with Consistency and Character Development

Rick Jr. is portrayed by Richie Merritt in his first-ever acting role. Merritt hails from inner-city Baltimore, and his thick accent in the film is authentic. Director Yann Demange was adamant that they find an actor with a background similar to Rick’s.

Merritt’s inexperience against Matthew McConaughey’s flamboyant performance as Rick Sr. is not a huge problem, but the character development is sometimes confusing. At some points, it seems Rick Sr. is the villainous father, ruining his children’s lives, but then within minutes is portrayed as deeply devoted to protecting his family.

The first two acts of the film focus a bit too extensively on the family fractures without linking them clearly to Rick Jr.’s willingness to adopt a criminal lifestyle. The flaws in storytelling prevent “White Boy Rick” from being a great movie but will not stop the audience from being able to understand why this is an important story to tell.

Mandatory Minimums for Addiction Facilitators

By the third act of the film, Rick is 17 and quickly becoming a high-level drug dealer. He’s achieved his goals of helping his family and then some. Just when things seem to be going smoothly for all, however, Rick is busted with eight kilograms of cocaine.

Because of the “650-Lifer” law passed in Michigan in 1978, this meant he faced a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. In a particularly poignant moment, after learning what fate awaits his son, a confused Rick Sr. says, “It’s not like he killed anyone!” The attorney suggests Rick Jr. might actually be in a better position if he had killed someone, rather than caught with such a large amount of narcotics.

The once hopeful tone of the movie takes an ominous turn as it is revealed that Rick had no recourse to avoid the life sentence. His FBI handlers abandoned him, and the Detroit prosecutors showed no mercy to the teenager. The movie ends with the title cards explaining the real Rick Wershe’s fate, indicating that he remained in prison for years while those he helped to bring down had all been released. Rick served 30 years for a non-violent offense, and even the correctional officers of the prison couldn’t understand why he was still there.

Second Chance Lands Him another Conviction

The real story of Rick Wershe’s life after conviction is even darker. Today, he is not a free man. He is housed in a Florida correctional facility after pleading guilty to involvement in a car theft ring during his time in prison. He says he took on the guilt of this crime to protect family members. He is currently scheduled to be released in 2020.

In 1998, during his original sentencing, Michigan reduced the “650-Lifer” law to a 20-year minimum, which granted Rick eligibility for parole. In 2003 he had his first parole hearing, with an unexpected character witness: Bob Richie, better known as “Kid Rock,” with whom Rick had forged a friendship while in prison. Richie delivered touching testimony, but the judge decided if Rick were released he would adopt the rock star’s fictionalized lifestyle and not live as a law-abiding citizen. He wasn’t granted parole until 2017.

Rick Wershe Jr. is not an innocent man. He committed serious crimes, and his involvement in the drug trade is not a light matter. There is no argument that many lives are lost to addiction and drug-related crimes every day.

However, this is a case in which the punishment absolutely did not match the crime. Rick’s life as he knew it was taken away at age 17, not for a couple of years but for the majority of his adulthood. The purpose of the criminal justice system was disregarded in this instance for the purpose of making a statement about a national drug crisis. It is not in the spirit of this nation that a man should lose most of his life because of his misspent youth.

Mandatory Minimums Are a Bad Solution

Rick is not alone. In the wake of a burgeoning drug crisis, much legislation was passed from the 1970s through the 1980s to impose harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, with many people facing several decades-long and even life sentences. It is estimated that 25 percent of U.S. prisoners are serving time for non-violent, low-level offenses.

In the 1990s, it began to become clear that the mandatory sentences were having no effect on crimes being committed, and many states began to roll back the mandates, instead supplying district courts with sentencing guidelines. This gave judges the ability to take special cases into account when sentencing defendants. Many prisoners like Rick, however, remained stuck, almost as if caught in a time capsule of archaic law.

“White Boy Rick” tells a small part of the life of one person whose life was drastically altered by the criminal justice system. Rick and the 300,000-plus inmates currently serving serious time for non-violent offenses are criminals, yes, but they are still citizens of a free country where the punishment must fit the crime.

When a misled person violates the law, the offense should be weighed and fairly assessed individually. Rick’s life behind bars cannot be given back to him, but perhaps his story can help others who have been unfairly sentenced to a life without freedom.