Justice Department Calls For Reforms Regarding Mandatory Minimum Sentences Involving Drugs

Image @ ACS Law

Mandatory minimum sentences have disproportionately affected the black community, particularly in the disparity in sentencing between cocaine and crack. Image @ ACS Law

Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce new guidelines regarding mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. American prisons have been over-filled due to current mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. The new proposal will aim to curb the excessive sentencing of dealers not judged to be part of a large gang or cartel. Another important aspect of the “Smart on Crime” initiative will include compassionate early release for elderly inmates who are considered to be no longer dangerous. Attorney General Holder on mandatory minimums:

“Mandatory minimums breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing for drugs have disproportionately affected the black community, especially when you consider the disparity in sentencing between cocaine and crack. Cocaine powder and crack are essentially two forms of the same drug. However, prior to 2010, a person caught with 1 gram of crack would get as much time as someone caught with 100 grams of powder. It is no secret that crack is more prevalent in the black community as opposed to cocaine, which is more costly and used more by affluent individuals. The mandatory minimums for crack were so harsh that African-Americans could spend as much time in prison for a nonviolent crime as white people convicted for violent crimes such as rape and assault.

The Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), passed in 2010, aimed at curbing the disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing. The FSA increased the amount of crack that can trigger mandatory minimums. For example, 5 to 28 grams of crack will trigger a 5-year mandatory minimum, while 50 to 280 grams will trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum. Meanwhile, simple possession of crack cocaine won’t warrant a 5-year mandatory minimum. The 100-to-1 sentencing ratio was also decreased to 18-to-1. The disparity is still evident and this “compromise” still leaves crack cocaine users open to unjust prosecution and sentencing. These two drugs are the same in different forms and should be penalized the same way.

There are several efforts in the Senate to help relieve the burden placed on federal judges by creating loopholes in the mandatory minimum requirements. Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee have introduced legislation that wouldn’t abolish mandatory sentences, but would expand the “safety valve” to allow judges to give more lenient sentences based on individual cases. Senator Durbin said of the bill:

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population. Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

Senators Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy also introduced similar legislation dubbed the “Justice Safety Valve Act,” which would apply to all federal crimes carrying minimum sentences.

Attorney General Holder’s announcement shows an increasing effort to reverse the effects of the “war on drugs” that has ruined many lives over the last three decades. The United States prison population makes up 25 percent of those incarcerated around the world, while possessing only 5 percent of the global population. It costs about 30,000 dollars a year to hold someone in prison. This practice of imprisoning nonviolent offenders for drugs redirects money from rehabilitation services that these individuals should be receiving. The notion that throwing someone in prison for using drugs will deter them from using again, once they are released, is misguided. Drug addiction is a disease; imprisonment doesn’t cure, and it only harms the individual involved.

After the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, a number of imprisoned crack offenders have had their prison sentenced reduced. According to preliminary reports, these actions have already saved the taxpayer 500 million dollars! The “war on drugs” should take place in the medical arena not in the penal system. Most of the time drug offenders don’t even receive the proper treatment while incarcerated and return to the life of abuse soon after being released. If America wants to be serious about drugs, all levels of government should dedicate significant amounts of resources for drug prevention and rehabilitation. Mandatory minimums and imprisonment are a misguided approach to the problem.