Mandatory Minimum Sentences

  • December 16, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Michael Paulson reports in The New York Times on a LGBT rights battle rising out of wedding vendors’ refusal to work on same-sex weddings.

    At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes that a former Bush Administration attorney made comments suggesting CIA officers are at legal risk due to the recent torture report.

    Joanna Rothkopf reports in Salon on a new financial inequality report that reveals the wealth gap between white and black Americans is the largest in 25 years.

    At Bloomberg View, Noah Feldman criticizes the recent Supreme Court ruling in Heien v. North Carolina for creating a different standard for police and citizen behavior.

    Carrie Johnson and Marisa Penaloza of NPR discuss a judge’s regret over the human toll of mandatory minimum sentences. 

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)

  • August 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and justice reform at the Open Society Foundations and convener of the Washington-based Justice Roundtable

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced significant steps today at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco to correct the deepest, costliest and worst aspects in our criminal justice system. The reforms he outlined in remarks entitled, Smart on Crime, were a long time coming for the criminal justice advocacy community.

    Although Congress recently approved legislation to help prisoners re-enter society and to reduce the infamous disparity between crack and powder cocaine, previous Presidents and Congress have never addressed the root causes of mass incarceration. These unjust laws and policies that drive up the U.S. prison population include inflexible front-end decisions that define who goes to prison and for how long, as well as stubborn back-end choices that impede early release.

    Today, in the fifth decade of both the March on Washington and the War on Drugs, the Attorney General has ushered in a revolutionary moment by advancing the policy discussion around widespread incarceration that has cost billions of dollars without making society any safer, and reducing flaws of a system that sends too many people of color to prison.

    The policies outlined in Holder’s speech will recalibrate the federal criminal justice system by correcting obstacles, inefficiencies and inequities and transforming law enforcement strategies so they alleviate, rather than exacerbate, harsh punishment.

  • June 21, 2012
    Guest Post
    Born Ready
    The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias
    By: 
    Dave Ungrady

    By Dave Ungrady, an author and journalist


    David Dickerson faced an unprecedented dilemma. The deadly and devastating floods from Hurricane Katrina threatened to flush away his first season as a college head basketball coach at Tulane University. His team was forced to relocate for the season to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, some 400 miles away. How could Dickerson convince his players to stay with a program treading water even before Katrina hit (Tulane finished 10-18 the previous season). How could a coach who barely knew his players convince them to suck it up and commit to playing for a team that had just one winning season in its previous five?

    Dickerson thought about Len Bias. He told his players about how he sucked it up and stayed with Maryland’s program for three trying years after Bias died. “I told them the story about not transferring and weathering the storm, and look where it got me,” he told me when I wrote my recent book Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.

     “Without that story, I think I would have lost half my team. They had to remain loyal to a coach who hadn’t recruited anyone on that team. I told them what happened and what type of player Bias was. I told them he was the best player I played with or against, or saw during my coaching career. The Len Bias story was the catch to get their attention, to get guys to be loyal, maintaining the course and yes, there will be some ups and downs, tragedies here and there.”

    Dickerson’s story of resilience is one of the more powerful accounts from Maryland players who were on the team when Bias died on June 19, 1986 from cocaine intoxication. Each year around this time, many reflect on the significance of his death, how Congress overreacted and within four months pushed through the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act. Within a decade, a high percentage of young black men overcrowded prisons with prison sentences that stretched two and three decades, victims of a sentencing disparity that harshly punished crack criminals. The law spawned a period of activism calling for sentencing reform, led by such advocacy groups as the American Constitution Society, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Open Society Foundation.

    Bias’s death convinced teenagers and adults alike about the perils of drug abuse. If Len Bias died from cocaine, so can I, they suddenly thought. Cocaine was no longer considered a recreational drug that altered lives. It was now considered a potential killer.

  • May 30, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    When it comes to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, judges’ hands are tied. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have discretion to implement the law, and a New York federal judge is calling on the Department of Justice to start using that discretion to curb the mass overuse of minimum sentences.

    “This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences,” writes U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in a recent opinion accompanying the sentencing of low-level offender Jamel Dossie, whom Gleeson had no choice but to sentence to five years in prison.

    As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak points out in a column highlighting the opinion, Gleeson is no softy on crime. In fact, he led the team of prosecutors that sentenced John J. Gotti to life in prison.

    But mandatory minimums, Gleeson writes in the opinion, do not just capture the managers and strategists that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 intended to punish. The ADAA, enacted after the overdose of college basketball star Len Bias, now ensnares some 74 percent of crack defendants, including many “low-level, substance abusing defendants” like Jamel Dossie, whose role in several drug deals was simply to ferry money between the buyer and the dealer.