Steamboat Springs Almost 30 years ago, as a law clerk for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, I assisted in drafting one of the first legal challenges to the mandatory minimum sentences that were then being enacted as a result of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.
Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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The Sentencing Reform Act portion of that law abolished parole in the federal criminal justice system and created the United States Sentencing Commission. The commission was charged with crafting and promulgating the United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
The politics behind the law, and the resultant mandatory minimum sentences still impacting nonviolent drug offenders today, were founded on the belief that judges were “soft on crime” and convicts were not receiving stiff enough prison sentences. That belief was largely fueled by rural and suburban dwellers who feared that drug murders plaguing inner cities would spread to their neighborhoods.
However, as many criminal justice practitioners predicted, the sentencing guidelines resulted in draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenders caught up in the misguided war on drugs originally launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
Personally, while investigating hundreds of nonviolent and violent drug-related crimes in Washington, D.C., between 1983 and 2002 — including the Rayful Edmond gang murders that played a role in the press labeling the District of Columbia the “murder capital” — I witnessed the injustice inflicted by sentencing guidelines that removed judicial discretion for nonviolent drug offenders swept up in the hysteria of the time.
Those nonviolent offenders — often sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10 and even 20 years without the possibility of parole — became cannon fodder for police and prosecutors who wanted to proclaim they were tough on crime. Further, even though unethical, many prosecutors would overcharge defendants with crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences. They did so to extract guilty pleas to lesser crimes from defendants fearful of spending many years in prison if wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.
On innumerable occasions, I sat with defendants as their attorney advised them of the lengthy prison sentence they would serve if convicted of a mandatory minimum sentence crime and how they could serve a shorter sentence by pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Given that choice — a choice that has nothing to do with guilt or innocence — the majority of defendants will plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit in order to avoid the risk of serving a much longer prison term if wrongfully convicted at trial.
Fortunately, there is a push underway to introduce sanity to the federal sentencing guidelines for reasons that span the political spectrum.
This week, in “Holder and Republicans unite to soften sentencing laws,” The New York Times reported on recent discussions between U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Sen. Rand Paul to pass legislation eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“Their partnership unites the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.
“While a range of judges, prosecutors and public defenders have for years raised concerns about disparities in punishment, it is this alliance that may make politically possible the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. …
“Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.”
Hopefully, the current bipartisan coalition built around Holder, Paul, Durbin, Lee, Leahy and Cruz can eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Unquestionably, given the electorally demonstrable change in attitude toward marijuana on the part of voters in Colorado and across the country, it’s just a matter of time until an injustice born of irrational fear is abolished.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com