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The Horrors of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

If you have never heard of mandatory minimum sentencing you may want to find out what it is. Mandatory minimum sentencing is a dark side of the criminal justice system. It has put many underserving people behind bars with ridiculously lengthy sentences. And their crimes? Well, they weren’t murder or rape or even assault.

What are mandatory minimum sentences?

Mandatory minimum sentence is a fixed sentence that a judge is forced to deliver to an individual convicted of a crime, neglecting the culpability and other mitigating factors involved in the crime. For example, people convicted of certain crimes must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in prison. In 1986, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws to impose the mandatory minimum sentence.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: Why it’s unfair

These laws were enacted as a way to provide consistent, stern sentences for all offenders who commit the same crime. But instead of being helpful they have made the problem much worse. They have shifted the justice system’s attention away from deciding guilt or innocence. And instead have given prosecutors more leverage, these laws often result in different sentences for different offenders who have committed similar crimes. Essentially mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges to send offenders to jail regardless of the type of crime or individual circumstance. This takes the entire court system out of the equation. It takes the neutral judge out of the equation too and leaves the sentencing up to the prosecutor who if they wish can sentence a person to the mandatory minimum sentence. And guess who gets the most mandatory minimum sentences? Non-violent drug offenders. Does this sound fair to you?

If you are still unsure about the fairness of mandatory minimum sentencing why don’t you ask the people who were sentenced to one a few of them.

Ronald Evans, 1993, got life in prison without the possibility of parole. Why? Because he was the supposed leader of a conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine. Prosecutors estimated the amount of drugs he was responsible for based on testimony from his co-defendants and gave him the life sentence based on the assumption that he was the organizer of the conspiracy.

His sentence is based on an Anti-Drug Law passed by  Congress in 1988. The change was to apply the mandatory sentences of 1986, intended for high level traffickers, to anyone who was a member of a drug trafficking conspiracy. The effect of this amendment was to make everyone in a conspiracy liable for every act of the conspiracy. If a defendant is simply the doorman at a crack house, he is liable for all the crack ever sold from that crack house — indeed, he is liable for all of the crack ever sold by the organization that runs the crack house.

Telisha Watkin, 2007, got 20 years in prison for setting up a single sale of crack cocaine. Telisha Watkins arranged a cocaine deal for an old neighbor who was actually a police informant. Watkins thought the deal she was doing just involved cocaine but it turned out there was also crack in the package. So she was given the sentence that was three times as severe as it would have been if it had just been cocaine.

Watkins was more severely sentenced for crack due to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed in 1986 in response to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. The law included a provision that created the disparity between federal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses penalizing the possession of an amount of crack 100 times smaller than the amount of cocaine that would lead to a penalty for possession of powder cocaine. For three decades, those who were arrested for possessing crack cocaine faced much more severe penalties than those in possession of powder cocaine. In 2010, after many years of advocacy groups trying to overturn the legistlation and faced with overwhelming evidence that crack cocaine is no more addictive than powder cocaine, the Fair Sentancing Act was signed into law by President Obama. The law reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain United States federal criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, among other provisions.

Timothy Tyler got a life sentence for distributing LSD when he was 25 after struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Tyler got hooked on LSD himself when touring with the Grateful Dead after high school. After he was arrested for selling drugs with his father in 1992, a Florida judge was forced to give him the life sentence because he’d already been caught selling LSD twice before. Both of his prior convictions resulted in probation though.

Tyler was also a victim of draconion drug laws enacted in the 80’s. Congress enacted  “three strikes and you’re out” laws, and many states followed suit with similar laws. These laws mandate that people with two prior felony convictions serve a life sentence for a third.

Thankfully someone has recognized the ridiculous and totally unreasonable mandatory minimum sentences, enter in, Eric Holder.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco. Although he said the United States should not abandon being tough on crime, Holder embraced steps to address “shameful” racial disparities in sentencing, the budgetary strains of overpopulated prisons and policies for incarceration that punish and rehabilitate, “not merely to warehouse and forget.” The idea behind Holder’s plan is to scale back prosecution for certain drug offenders — those with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels. He said they would no longer be charged with offenses that “impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” They now “will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.” Holder also will be lessening the use of mandatory minimums sentences that require a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for those convicted of federal and state crimes.

And with that hopefully sooner rather than later we will see the end of small time drug offenders filling our jails and prisons unfairly. Hopefully the people who need it will be able to get some kind of drug treatment instead of severe prison time. If you or someone you know is in need of drug treatment, we can help! Give us a call at 800-951-6135.



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