An overdue second look at mandatory sentencing

The News TribuneAugust 13, 2013 

Tacoma police arrest a suspect during Operation Hard Rock 2 in 2011. Local police worked with several state and federal agencies to bust drug dealers in the Hilltop neighborhood. Staff file photo, 2011

Eric Holder’s partial stand-down on mandatory sentences suggests that America may be coming to its senses about throw-away-the-keys, one-size-fits-all criminal penalties.

The U.S. attorney general on Monday announced that federal prosecutors will basically start undercharging nonviolent drug suspects who might otherwise face long, harsh sentences in the federal criminal justice system.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group, cites case after case in which mandatory sentence laws forced judges to impose stunning penalties on petty criminals.

To take an extreme 1991 example, U.S. Judge Roger Vinson of Florida sentenced Michael Prikakis to 46 years upon his conviction for selling cocaine to an undercover officer three times over the course of seven days while in possession of a firearm. Prikakis had no previous criminal convictions.

When Vinson handed down what was effectively a life sentence, the normally hard-nosed judge described the penalty as “totally unwarranted,” “cruel and unusual” and “a violation of due process.”

“If I’m here simply as a machine to impose a sentence in accordance with some statutory mandate,” Vinson said, “then our system has gone far awry.”

Long mandatory minimum sentences became a fad back in the 1980s and early 1990s as lawmakers vied with each other to prove how tough on crime they were.

They were well-intentioned, for the most part. The harsh penalties were supposed to scare criminals and give prosecutors leverage to squeeze accomplices into giving up the big guys.

They were also meant to eliminate wild disparities in sentencing from one court to another. And they produced an undeniable public benefit: Enough dangerous people were locked up for a long enough time to produce a measurable drop in the crime rate.

In Tacoma, harsh penalties have helped law enforcement defeat violent street gangs; federal and local officers have repeatedly teamed up to send hardened gang leaders for long stays in the federal prison system.

Other crackdowns elsewhere have been less selective. People on the periphery of deals and other small-timers have sometimes wound up with sentences of 10 years and upwards with no chance of parole.

The problem lies in casting the net too widely. Few crimes are so heinous that a judge should have almost no discretion to weigh individual circumstances.

Congress would do well to pare back the reach of mandatory minimums in the U.S. criminal system. Justice – almost by definition – requires that penalties be tailored to specific individuals according to the unique facts of a case.

Especially in Congress, mandatory minimum laws were often crowd-pleasers designed to help their sponsors win re-election. They were good as political gimmicks – but not so good as measures of justice.

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