Reform advocates fight to eliminate federal mandatory minimums

Nearly five decades ago there was a massive push to address drug trafficking on the federal level. At the time, the answer that lawmakers proposed was to address the issue with a zero tolerance attitude. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law that created strict mandatory minimum sentencing.

By 2012, a look back at federal laws shows that not only were the sentences becoming dangerously strict, but Congress had even increased the number of federal crimes on the books by 50 percent. Now, the effects of those sweeping laws can be seen, and reform advocates are fighting hard to rework the laws — starting with the mandatory minimums.

Part of the larger problem, say reform advocates, is that these mandatory minimums tie judges hands in many situations in which mitigating factors should be considered. For instance, one federal judge recalled a time in which he was forced to sentence a 19-year-old boy to 10 years in federal prison.

In this case, the judge said the boy had a lot going for him. He was a non-violent offender with no criminal record. He was on track to not only attend college, but to be the first one in his family to do so. What stopped his progress was that officers found him sitting in a car in which drugs were later found. The judge said no drug use, dealing or violent offenses were tied to the incident.

Other problems arise in the disparate treatment of these laws, say political advocates. According to data collected over the past few decades, African Americans and Hispanics often received higher sentences — in many cases due to a lack of experienced representation prior to conviction.

Lawmakers in Georgia have already taken steps in this past year to change sentencing laws that are seen as outdated and costly. Even though Georgia sentencing laws may have been amended on the state level, those in Georgia can and often are charged in the federal court system. The examples mentioned above are exactly the reason that those charged with a federal drug crime should seek representation immediately, because it can have an effect on the outcome of a trial.

Source: msnbc, “Presumed guilty: Libertarians join liberals to fight ‘unjust’ mandatory minimums,” Ari Melber, Sept. 18, 2013