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June 15, 2014

"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner.  Here are excerpts:

Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.

Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.

Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....

Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.

Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.

June 15, 2014 at 10:13 AM | Permalink


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I truely believe that federal prosecuters lock in sentences that are so long, they have no clue. Its just a number to the, there is no 2nd thought at all.

When they take out the phrases, whichever gives the longest sentence and potential for, then we have achieved something.

They sure approve upward enhancements without batting an eye. When the Fsa was passed they slid in 2 levels for running a drug house, 2 levels for a hate crime and 2 levels for vaguely threating someone. These are flaky. In addition iodine and red phosphorus is now included in the drug table.

Running a drug house needs to be tossed. If your making drugs, your running a drug house. Not needed. Threaten force, so a witness testifies a dude screamed at me that he would kick my but. Its just too one sided and easy to ratchet up sentences.

Red phosphorus and iodine can be used in huge qtys and is not the required ingredient.

The feds has a hell of a way to go. The guidelines need to be chopped down and burned. Along with the attitudes that Washington has. Drunk on debt. No efficeincy at all. These guys never had a meaningful job or had to meet a payroll and yr end respnsibilities.. How about coming upnwith a budget and sticking to it.

But its so easy to pound on Congress, especially the crew in office.

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jun 15, 2014 11:24:22 PM

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