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July 2, 2020

"How Mandatory Minimums Are Weaponized"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new opinion piece in the New York Times authored by Sandeep Dhaliwal. I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

In the early morning hours of May 30, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman were arrested in Brooklyn after a night of citywide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.  They are charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an unoccupied police car.  No one was hurt.  Both have plead not guilty, but if they are convicted of the array of federal charges leveled against them, there will be no judging involved when they are sentenced: They will face mandatory sentences of 45 years in prison.

Their story is just one example of how many senseless mandatory minimum penalties — blind to the facts of a case and the stories of the individual defendants — remain enshrined in law and must be changed....

At a time when progress is being made to address policing, the prosecution of Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman is a sobering reminder of other, deeply ingrained injustices in our systems of punishment. Even after modest improvements made by the 2018 First Step Act, the penalties for criminal activity are too often draconian, and prosecutors are too often keen to invoke them not because the defendants deserve the severity but to coerce them to plead guilty.  Reforms to eliminate mandatory minimums and rein in prosecutorial overreaching are vital to comprehensively reforming our overly punitive criminal justice systems, whose excessive harshness disproportionately affects communities of color....

Mandatory minimums grew popular in the 1970s and 1980s, as Congress and many states began adopting them for a slew of crimes — the biggest category being drug crimes.  Proponents said they were designed to deter the most serious types of criminal conduct.  But the penalties were inflexibly harsh, and it quickly became clear that many low-level offenders were being swept up and facing grossly excessive sentences.

The laws also suffered from another flaw: They were racist. The most infamous example is that it once took 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum prison terms.  Other lesser-known examples abound.  People of color are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums for the simple reason that they are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes generally....

[T]he 45-year mandatory minimum penalty that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman face is part of an all too familiar pattern of prosecution.  The goal is to coerce people to plead guilty to charges carrying harsh sentences in exchange for the dismissal of charges that mandate unconscionable ones.

The message that prosecutors send to them and to so many other defendants is clear: If you consider exercising your fundamental right to trial, we will seek penalties that are so excessive that you will think twice, because we have the power to take sentencing authority away from the judiciary.

When this regime of mandatory minimums began more than 30 years ago, 20 percent of federal criminal cases were resolved by trial.  Today, fewer than 3 percent are, and more than 97 percent of cases are resolved by pleas.

No rational observer would conclude that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman should spend a majority of their lives behind bars for an alleged act that caused harm to no one.  To put the threat of a 45-year mandatory sentence into some perspective, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the median sentence for murder in the Second Circuit from 2015 through 2019 was 16 years.  The extreme 45-year sentences they face are a reminder that real people and families and communities are at the receiving end of these devastating penalties.

As lawmakers in Congress propose sweeping changes to policing spurred by society’s broad awakening to systemic racism, they must also make changes to eliminate federal mandatory minimums, rein in overcharging and help restore the right to trial.

July 2, 2020 at 12:11 AM | Permalink

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