Blog of Rights

Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights (04/26/2013)

By Alex Stamm, ACLU Center for Justice at 4:17pm

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it's ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we've spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Previous posts have surveyed the many reform bills in play across the states. This week, we'll take a more detailed look at a recently enacted reform bill, Georgia's HB 349. The bill, which was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal this week, will allow judges to issue sentences below the mandatory minimum in some drug trafficking cases. The bill also gives judges that same option in certain violent-offense cases, provided that the prosecutor and defense counsel agree that circumstances warrant a prison sentence less severe than the mandatory minimum.

The bill is thus a "safety valve" bill; it doesn't repeal any mandatory minimums, but it does establish parameters within which a judge can sentence below the mandatory minimum if he or she believes a lesser sentence is more appropriate. The bill does not require judges to issue a sentence below the mandatory minimum, and even if the judge chooses to do so, a lower minimum sentence (50 percent lower than the standard sentence) still applies. Thus, the bill merely lowers the mandatory minimum for a subset of defendants convicted of a drug offense.

That subset of eligible defendants is likely to be very small. According to testimony on the bill, there were about 2,600 people admitted to Georgia prisons for drug trafficking in 2012. Only 129 of those had no prior criminal record, which is an eligibility requirement for a lower sentence under HB 349. Of those 129, presumably some of those would not have met other eligibility criteria; for example, some may have possessed a weapon. So the bill will allow fewer than 5 percent of drug trafficking defendants to have a chance to receive a lower sentence than the standard mandatory minimum (which runs from 5-25 years, depending on the substance and quantity).

In other words, the bill will apply to very few people, and even those people will still face a mandatory minimum sentence, albeit one half as severe as they would otherwise.

The bill contains an additional provision. HB 349 also changes the state statute that currently requires prosecutors to prove a defendant "knowingly" trafficked drugs of a specific type and weight. After the bill takes effect on July 1, prosecutors will no longer be required to prove that a drug trafficking defendant knew the weight of controlled substances involved in the charge.

Here are some other interesting items from the past week:

  • David Keene, former president of the American Conservative Union and current National Rifle Association president, wrote an op-ed in the Salem Statesman-Journal this week in support of Oregon's HB 3194, which among other things would eliminate some mandatory minimums. Said Mr. Keene, "As conservatives, we also believe that a key to protecting our freedom is maintaining the separation of powers between the branches of government. Such protection is lost when so-called ‘mandatory minimum' sentences force the judicial branch to impose broad-brush responses to nuanced problems."
  • Business Insider published ten profiles of people serving very long sentences for drug offenses.
  • Colorado legislators will consider a broad reform of the state's drug sentencing laws. SB 250 would, among many other things, expand the use of treatment rather than prison, reduce the penalties for drug possession, and distinguish between large- and small-quantity dealers for the purpose of sentencing. You can find a video in support of the bill here.

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