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December 20, 2007

NY Times editorial against mandatories

This morning's New York Times has this strong editorial, entitled "An Idea Whose Time Should Be Past," which calls for the elimination of all mandatory sentencing statutes.  Here are excerpts:

The mandatory sentencing craze that began in the 1970s was a public-policy disaster. It drove up inmate populations and corrections costs and forced the states to choose between building prisons and building schools or funding medical care for the indigent.  It filled the prisons to bursting with nonviolent drug offenders who would have been more cheaply and more appropriately dealt with through treatment. It tied the hands of judges and ruined countless young lives by mandating lengthy prison terms in cases where leniency was warranted. It undermined confidence in the fairness of the justice system by singling out poor and minority offenders while largely exempting the white and wealthy....

Nowhere is repeal of mandatory-sentencing policies more urgently needed than in New York, which sparked an unfortunate national trend when it passed its draconian Rockefeller drug laws in the 1970s. Local prosecutors tend to love this law because it allows them to bypass judges and decide unilaterally who goes to jail and for how long.

But the general public is increasingly skeptical of a system that railroads young, first-time offenders straight to prison with no hope of treatment or reprieve.  In an often-cited 2002 poll by The New York Times, for example, 79 percent of respondents favored changing the law to give judges control over sentencing. And 83 percent said that judges should be allowed to send low-level drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

As I have suggested before, repealing and even resisting mandatory minimum sentences requires politicians to show courage and leadership to help the public understand the complicated but compelling reasons why crude mandatory sentencing provisions often do more harm than good in a criminal justice system.  I am hoping that, in the wake of the Supreme Court and the US Sentencing Commmission showing courage and leadership last week, some elected official will step up to the plate.

December 20, 2007 at 09:20 AM | Permalink


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The Times' editorial loses all credibility when it uses the loaded term, "railroad".

Posted by: federalist | Dec 20, 2007 10:26:22 AM

It would be nice if the NYT editorial writers were to check their facts before they wrote an editorial.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004 20% of the prison inmates had drugs listed as the most serious charge so they contribute to prison crowding but they are not the primary cause.

Iowa is not representative but I have data for Iowa prisons. A third of the prisoners admitted to an Iowa prison in FY06 on a drug charge were new court commitments and 29% were probation revocations where the judge tried probation instead of prison but the offender wound up in prison because of repeated violations. Another 25% were revocations of parole and work release. There were also 10% who were probationers were were suspended and run though a violator program and returned to supervised release after 4 months. A third of the drug offenders admitted to prison were returnees who had been in an Iowa prison on 1 to 8 prior occasions. In other words two thirds of the drug offenders admitted were violators of alternative supervision who should not be in prison but are there because they made bad choices.

Of those in prison in FY06 15% were serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for drug possession in Iowa and for 2% of the prisoners the most serious charge was drug possession. The violations and revocations and in particular probation revocation of drug offenders combine to be one of the most important reasons for prison admissions. Mandatory minimums were introduced in Iowa to make sentencing more uniform but the cure failed and caused more serious problems. In some respects because of the resultant overcrowding mandatory minimum sentences have turned out to be a form of suicide machine.

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 20, 2007 4:56:30 PM

Federalist, you've obviously never represented anyone who faces one (or especially multiples) of those mandatory minimum charges. Especially in drug crimes, where the statutory maximum is very high (e.g. in Virginia, where there is a mandatory mimum three years in prison for third or subsequent offense sale of a controlled substance, but the statutory maximum is life in prison without the possibility of parole) the prosecutors can load up on charges - each with a mandatory minimum sentence and use the statutory maximum or alternatively the high net result of several charges together to coerce a guilty plea or a plea bargain (where a couple of the charges are dropped) to limit the sentence to the mandatory minimum. To use the Virginia drug law as an example, if a defendant faced 5 counts of sale of a controlled substance (which could be selling 5 rocks of crack to the same snitch on 5 different ocassions so generally these would be small time drug dealers), the mandatory minimum sentence would be 15 years in prison (and since the sentencing guidelines in Virginia call for less time in prison, the judge is not likely to sentence a defendant for more on a guilty plea than the mandatory minimum), but the defendant could be sentenced to up to 5 consectutive life terms if they risk going to trial. Very few defendants will take that risk.

Railroad seems like a fairly accurate term to describe what happens in cases where mandatory minimum sentences - especially when tied to a much larger maximum sentence - are available.

Posted by: Zack | Dec 21, 2007 4:28:48 PM

Zack, wouldn't the editorial have been much stronger if it had said "coercion" vice railroad?

Posted by: federalist | Dec 21, 2007 6:31:54 PM

Railroaded is a good concept and has long been a word or part of a phrase employed to describe pernicious judicial systems. A railroad was often associated with big business, special interests, political corruption and contempt for the common person. There was a train running from St. Louis to Jefferson City home of the state prison. Later they employed buses to move the inmates from City Jail to the state prison-- inmates to the back of the bus. The boxcar was too a symbol of the tyranny of Stalin in sending dissidents and petty criminals off to Siberia or of Hitler sending millions to death camps. Petty politicians climb the ecosystem on the backs of the "criminals" by legislating crimes for of petty drug use. Some of the folks in Congress who puff on their cigars and champion the rights of tobacco companies to export their poison to the world, crimimalize pot and crow about it to the constituents back home. Jerks like Rep. Mark Foley who championed the perverse laws such as the Adam Walsh Act who get caught trying to pervert their male almost-under-age "pages".
Mandatory minimum sentences are a railroad. The best one can say about the railroad is the analogy often given in the former slave states when one describes his place of employment. "Its a plantation, but its not a bad plantation."
I have some hope that some politicians will step up to the plate and repeal some of these stupid laws that railroad human beings to prisons. Statements from opportunists like Mitt whats his name who said that he never pardoned any human being while Governor, is indicative of the level of our political landscape.

Posted by: M.P. Bastian | Dec 23, 2007 6:09:59 AM

Thank you for taking the time to read this...I was wondering if there was a link or article about Iowa,s Mandatory sentencing time table on changing law? I am not a student, professer, attorney or anything of the kind, I am just a concerned citizen of Iowa.

Thank you,
Kris Martin

Posted by: Kris Martin | Jul 15, 2008 10:09:59 PM

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