Evidence points to serious flaws in federal drug crimes sentencing

A recent opinion piece from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) makes strong arguments that underscore the harshness and lack of logic behind many federal sentencing outcomes for persons convicted of federal criminal charges, especially drug trafficking charges.

The evidence supporting that organization’s view is both ample and irrefutable and by itself makes a compelling case for the need to engage in systemic sentencing reform, especially sentencing mitigation to reduce the overly heavy hand of the criminal justice system on thousands of minor and nonviolent offenders.

The ACLU is far from being alone in its pro-reform views. Many prosecutors have spoken up about problematic outcomes they see with mandatory minimum sentences. Experienced criminal defense attorneys routinely represent clients confronting draconian sentencing possibilities, and they do everything in their power to ameliorate such outcomes.

Many judges, too, have publicly criticized the federal drug laws they must enforce that require stringent long-term prison sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug dealers, users and addicts.

One of those judges, federal district judge Mark Bennett, says that the sentencing outcomes frequently miss the point. High-level masterminds who run large drug operations — who Bennett calls “the kingpins” — are sentenced to hard mandatory minimum terms only rarely when compared with what he says are “women, men and young adults who are nonviolent drug addicts.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has released data showing that the majority of low-level cocaine defendants receive five- or 10-year mandatory prison terms.

As the ACLU argues, such outcomes reflect an “absurd tragedy” that takes a heavy toll on human lives and taxpayers’ wallets.

Evidence exists that strongly supports the idea of giving judges greater discretion to hand down shorter sentences, order drug treatment, impose probation and secure any number of alternatives to lengthy prison terms for most drug offenders. In states that have allowed for this, crime rates and prison expenses have, unsurprisingly, fallen.

Source: ACLU, “The reality of federal drug sentencing,” Alex Stamm, Nov. 27, 2012