Many federal and state crimes carry a “mandatory minimum” term of imprisonment for any defendant convicted of that crime. In practice, this means that if you are convicted of an offense that carries such a punishment, regardless of any mitigating circumstances in the case, the judge is bound by law to sentence you to the specified mandatory minimum punishment. As I mentioned in my post last week, drug law is one area where mandatory minimums are extremely popular.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently released his intention to reform drug law and do away with many of the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Such sentences have ruined countless lives and overcrowded prisons beyond capacity. Jacob Sullum, contributor for Forbes, reported some of these horror stories in his September 18th article. For example, consider, “a 10-year sentence received by an 18-year-old first-time offender caught with less than two ounces of cocaine, a 22-year sentence received by an 24-year-old woman who sold 13.9 grams of crack to a police informant, and a 25-year sentence received by a 46-year-old father of three who sold some of his painkillers to someone he thought was his friend.” While these are only a few examples of the hundreds and thousands of individuals who received similar sentences, they serve as a realistic illustration of the practical application of mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Are these punishments justified? If so, do they enhance safety or serve some other important interest of our society?
It is hard to see what rational basis is served by incarcerating those who, as above, possessed a miniscule amount of drugs. Are these the dangerous criminals in society who deserve to go to jail for 10, 22, and 25 years? One would venture to guess that most people would see the individuals who import the drugs into the U.S. as the ones who deserve these harsh and lengthy prison sentences.
Additionally, we should also think about the nature of drug crimes, particularly possession charges. It is a fairly established fact that drug addiction can destroy someone’s life; if someone has a serious drug addiction, their actions are, many times, the result of their addiction. We know that drug addiction, much like alcoholism, becomes a life long battle for addicts. Do we throw alcoholics in jail for drinking too much? In the drug context, we send those who are caught with drugs on their person to prison for long periods of time in an effort to “rehabilitate” them.
The flip side of the coin of drug arrests, especially for possession, is that many low-level peddlers who receive these steep sentences are selling drugs to earn money. While this is illegal, are their actions as morally culpable as someone who commits a murder?
The over-arching problem here is that mandatory minimum sentences take away a sentencing judge’s ability to tailor the sentence to the circumstances. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, passed in 1986 as part of the Sentencing Reform Act, judges for many crimes are given an advisory range of imprisonment to consider when sentencing a defendant. There are factors the judge must take into account when coming to his conclusion, thus allowing him the flexibility in non-mandatory minimum cases to set an appropriate term of punishment or imprisonment based on the circumstances. However, before United States v. Booker was decided in 2005, these guidelines were mandatory. 545 U.S. 220 (2005). After Booker, the guidelines were deemed only advisory by the Court. Giving a sentencing judge the ability to appropriately tailor a sentence to the circumstances seems to be a cornerstone of our legal system. Our system aims to punish, but only enough to fulfill our goals of punishment (deterrence, incapacitation, etc.).
However, the Sentencing Guidelines were originally instituted to strip judges of this power to tailor an appropriate sentence. The legislature became concerned with the variance in sentencing for the same crime amongst judges. But, have we gone too far in alleviating the judges of this ability? Should judges have discretion to impose a fair sentence in every case, or only some?
Hopefully Eric Holder’s call for change in mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes will spark a wave of change in this area of sentencing law.