U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently issued a directive to all U.S. Attorney’s Offices to charge defendants with the most serious provable offenses that carry the most substantial sentences, including mandatory-minimum sentences. This directive is a shift back to prior years where the “war on drugs” and other initiatives were designed to reduce crime and incarcerate – warehouse for extended periods - defendants for the longest possible terms.
Unfortunately, the myth that long prison sentences incarcerate the most dangerous offenders and reduce crime through deterrence, has been debunked in study after study. Former President Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder, recognized this fact and had implemented a policy to not indiscriminately charge the most serious offense for non-violent drug offenses because it disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities. The prior administration, and interestingly Governor Christie, view these recidivist non-violent drug offenders as a health crisis.
The ACLU has reported that black males are four to five times likelier to be convicted of drug possession, even though black males and white males use drugs at similar rates. While the vast majority of drug dealers are white, three quarters of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino. The collateral consequences of the war on drugs results in a generation of people being incarcerated for excessively long terms, families torn apart and the loss of voting rights forever.
The return to a policy of charging the most serious offense, that often includes mandatory-minimum prison terms, takes discretion away from judges to fashion a sentence tailored to the individual offender, rather than the offense. With a mandatory-minimum sentence set by statute, the court lacks the ability to take into account the traditional sentencing factors of age, education, family background, prior good deeds, the actual nature of the offense, extenuating circumstances and the like. Mandatory sentencing simply imposes a minimum number of years regardless of the individual and the specific facts and circumstances of that particular case.
The financial consequences to society are great as well. Substantially more people are incarcerated for substantially longer periods of time, thus increasing the costs exponentially. The current cost of the prison system is approaching $100 billion a year. The trend in the past several years of fewer prisoners and a reduction in the number of privately run prisons that cost taxpayers even more money will be reversed under Sessions’ renewed charging policy.
Mandatory minimum sentences occur in the federal system as well as in many states. Some state, like Florida, have enacted extremely harsh mandatory sentences for selling as few as 25 or 30 pills of one’s own prescribed painkillers. Often these individuals are addicted to prescription painkillers and sell their drugs to support their habit. The only way to avoid the harsh minimum sentence is to become a cooperator/informant and set-up others in similar schemes. If the person cannot set others up, or chooses not to, they are incarcerated for years rather than receiving the appropriate drug treatment.
Opioid addiction is the most fast-paced drug problem sweeping the country. Heroin, prescription painkillers and synthetic opioids are the new drug of choice among a large cross-section of the population. The need for drug education and treatment has never been more pressing. Yet the proposed new federal budget cuts drug programs across the board. It seems like we are taking a giant step back in time, ignoring the reality of the drug problem and simply looking to incarcerate another generation of people.
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