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Federal Study Deems Mandatory Minimum Sentences "Excessively Severe"

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The New York Times reports that the United States Sentencing Commission, in its 645-page report, has concluded that federal mandatory minimum sentences are often “excessively severe,” not “narrowly tailored to apply only to those offenders who warrant such punishment,” and not “applied consistently.” That is especially so for sentences of people convicted of drug-trafficking offenses, who make up more than 75 percent of those given federal mandatory minimum sentences.

The racial disparities in sentencing are also stark. In some cases, mandatory minimums can be reduced for offenders if the crime did not involve violence or a gun. But most African-American drug offenders convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum sentence could not meet these and other requirements: only 39 percent qualified for a reduction compared with 64 percent of whites.

The report notes that inequitable sentencing policies “may foster disrespect for and lack of confidence in the federal criminal justice system.”

I am glad that the government is finally learning that non-discretionary mandatory sentencing is not only fundamentally unfair, it does not appropriately or proportionally sentence offenders. Under mandatory sentencing, it is possible for a first-time offender to receive the same sentence as a 10-time felony offender.

While mandatory minimum reform is not a popular political issue because elected officials fear it makes them look "weak on crime," at least the federal government is taking the time to really see if mandatory minimum sentencing is accomplishing its goal. Clearly, based on their findings, it is not.

Mandatory minimum sentencing exists at nearly every level of the criminal justice system. From misdemeanor offenses (such as DUI), to non-violent felony offenses (trafficking), to violent felony offenses (crimes subject to mandatory sentencing under 10-20-Life).

With the feds taking the lead, perhaps state governments will begin to assess their own mandatory sentencing schemes. We must never lose sight of the humanity of our justice system. Good, non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people make mistakes. They make one poor decision in their lifetime. And under mandatory sentencing, they pay dearly for that one act of indiscretion.

I have watched mandatory sentencing destroy families when good sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers are sent to prison for decades for something as seemingly simple as possessing too many pills. I understand the theory behind mandatory sentencing, but when put into action, it clearly does not work.