Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences Essay, Research Paper
Mandatory minimum drug sentences should be eliminated. First and foremost the mandatory minimum punishment that is given does not fit the crime. Second of all, Judges can not sentence below a mandatory minimum unless the defendant provides ?substantial assistance.? The final reason that they should be eliminated is because they have a more of an impact on minorities. These are only a few of the reasons why mandatory minimum drug sentences should be taken away. The policy has become a debated topic, with its implications reaching beyond those that affect just the drug dealers and users.
Mandatory minimum laws have been among the more popular crime-fighting measures of recent years. Such laws require that a judge impose a sentence of at least a specified length if certain criteria are met. For example, a person convicted by a federal court of possessing 1 gram of LSD must be sentenced to at least 5 years in prison no exception. The problem with LSD specifically is that it comes in many forms. For instance, if a person is holding 1 hit of liquid LSD that is placed on a strawberry can get up to 10 years in jail whereas another person with 100 hits of acid in paper form may not even get a mandatory sentence if it weighs under a gram. The whole point behind the legislation comes in response to the American public?s desire to crack down on those sell drugs. Fifty-five percent (55%) of all federal drug defendants are low-level offenders, such as mules or street dealers. Only 11% ate classified as high-level dealers (U.S. Sentencing Commission). In 15 states you can get life in prison for a Marijuana offence and 17% of all federal inmates are convicted marijuana offenders. Since mandatory sentences do not allow parole, federal prisoners convicted for a non-violent marijuana charge often serve more than convicted murders sentenced under state law (FRONTLINE). Mandatory sentences must be imposed regardless of the person?s role in the crime, or other migrating factors. The average sentence for a first-time, federal drug offender serves more time then someone charged with: firearms, sexual abuse, manslaughter, assault, burglary/B&E, and auto theft (Caulkins 29)
A judge in a case involving a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence cannot impose a sentence below that minimum, with one exception, and only if requested by the Justice Department. The only exception for a mandatory minimum sentence exists when the government says that a drug offender has given ?substantial assistance? to the government the prosecution of another drug offender. One of the common ways that the Justice Department gets testimony in drug cases is to offer to other drug offenders the possibility of more lenient sentence if they testify against another drug offender. Over the last 5 years nearly 1/3 of the people sentenced in drug trafficking cases in the federal system had their sentence reduced under the substantial assistance program because they informed on other people (U.S. Sentencing Commission Annual Report 1997). Judge Sweet is opposed to mandatory minimum sentences and the federal sentencing guidelines and in the past he declared the sentencing guidelines unconstitutional. In a recent interview he stated:
?Well, since 1989 I’ve taken the position that I don’t think criminal penalties are the way to deal with the drug problem. It is a policy that has not worked. I don’t think it’s going to work in the future. It creates a great deal of distress and further, it really is dishonest because I think the American people perhaps are of the view that these punitive measures are effective, where in fact, they are not. The idea of using the criminal law to deal with something which is basically a health problem, basically an education problem, I think that that’s a bad mistake in public policy. But then when you heighten that with the draconian penalties, which we’ve had since 1984 and seem to be increasing, that just makes the situation worse. In fact, it was in 1988 that I had a mandatory minimum sentence that I had to impose on a young Puerto Rican fellow, a first time offender. He had no deep involvement, yet … the situation was such that it had to be a mandatory minimum of 10 years, and it was that sentence which made me think to myself, is this policy working? Is this right? And so I started doing some research and did some thinking about it on my own and one thing and another, and came to the conclusion that the criminal prohibition was wrong. But it was the drama of that 10-year sentence on that 17-year-old that really forced me to focus on the problem and drove me to the conclusion that I just don’t think the policy works.?
Later in the interview Judge Sweet goes on to talk about ?substantial assistance.?
?Through these mandatory minimums [Congress has shifted] a certain amount of the decision making from the courts to the prosecutors. The minute that it shifted to the prosecutors, then the chief malefactor who does have some information to give up, that person can make a deal with the government and escape the mandatory minimum, while the messenger or the conveyor of information or the person that’s just carrying the package–of course they have to know what the package is, but relatively minor role–those are the people that are getting the mandatory minimums because they have no way to cooperate. They, by and large, don’t know anything (Sweet).?
Two victims of this problem are twins Lamont and Lawrence Garrison. Tito Abea an autobody shop owner in Maryland was arrested as a major player in a 20 person cocaine operation. In order to get a reduction from his mandatory prison sentence term he implicated the Garrison twins. He reported that he gave the twins 1-2 kilos of cocaine every week for about 10 weeks in 1996 and 1997. Soon, other conspirators were following Abea?s lead and began to testify that they had seen the transactions take place. The twins claimed that they only had contact with Abea because he was doing extensive work to his grandmother’s car. There were no drugs, paraphernalia, or other evidence of drugs found on the twins or in their house. There were no records of them selling drugs, other then the testimony given by known and now convicted drug dealers in the conspiracy. There was no proof that they ?delivered money and other benefits? from 2 years of drug dealing. In fact the brothers were living in their mother?s apartment and had thousands of dollars in college loans to pay off. Their mother reports that lawyers failed to gather key information, which would have prevented Lamot from his 19-year mandatory sentence and Lawerence from his 15-year sentence (Stewart).
Mandatory Minimum drug sentencing has had an impact on minorities in the United States. In 1980, 33 percent of all federal prisoners were minorities. In 1995, 11 years after mandatory minimum sentences were created, 64 percent of federal prisoners are minorities. (Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform) An estimated 1,471 African-Americans per 100,000 African-American residents were incarcerated in the nation’s prisons at the end of 1993, compared to 207 whites per 100,000 white residents. (Bureau of Justice Statistics) This is an incarceration ratio of African-Americans to whites of seven to one. Jerome E. McElroy, executive director of the New York Criminal Justice Agency, observes: “The war on drugs translates into greatly expanded arrests, convictions, and punishment of street level dealers, especially those trafficking cocaine who tend to operate openly in large urban neighborhoods, which make them more likely to be caught in local police sweeps. These policy, strategic, and tactical decisions make inevitable the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on poor, urban minority populations.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in 1995 that whites account for 52 percent of all crack users and African-Americans, 38 percent. However, 88 percent of those sentenced for crack offenses are African-American and just 4.1 percent, white. (U.S. Sentencing Commission, Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, February 1995.) African-Americans made up 41 percent of the federal prison population in May 1997, up from 31 percent in 1986. African-Americans accounted for 84 percent of defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses in 1997 and were given average sentences of 125 months. (U.S. Sentencing Commission Annual Report 1997 pp.69 & 81.) The issue of Mandatory Minimum sentencing for drug offenses is complex as is, but when one pauses to consider the impact that this has on the poorer Americans, or different populations of American ethnic groups, then the issue becomes even further complicated.
While Mandatory Minimums may have sounded effective and fair in theory, it has been demonstrated by various research groups that these sentencing policies have been anything but effective or equitable. Something must be done to repair the damage caused by Mandatory Minimums. Perhaps a new plan would be to eliminate these policies altogether, and start anew.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prisoners in 1994, 1995.? . Washington, D.C., Government
Printing Office, 1994,1995
Caulkins, J., et al., Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers? Money?, Santa Monica, CA: RAND corp (1997)
Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform, Washington, D.C., Government
Printing Office, 1997
FRONTLINE “Busted-America’s War on Marijuana” Videocassette. Dir. Ryall Wilson, PBS Video, 1999
Stewart, Julie. “Behind Bars: Victims of Mandatory Minimums” FAMM-gram, 9.3 (Sept.
Sweet, Robert. Interview. PBS FRONTLINE online www.pbs.org/frontline Copyright 1999
U.S. Sentencing Commission Annual Report 1997. Washington, D.C., Government
Printing Office, 1997
U.S. Sentencing Commission, Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, February 1995