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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union testified today before the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that mandatory minimums should be abolished or reformed because they generate unnecessarily harsh sentences, tie judges’ hands in considering individual circumstances, create racial disparities in sentencing and empower prosecutors to force defendants to bargain away their constitutional rights. Congress has mandated that the USSC provide a report on mandatory minimums by October 2010. ACLU Drug Law Reform Project Director Jay Rorty urged the commission to reaffirm its long stated position that mandatory minimums should be abolished and asked the commission to take steps independent of Congress to mitigate the harms of existing mandatory minimum sentences.
The Sentencing Commission was created by Congress to draft a sentencing guideline scheme to bring uniformity to federal sentencing. The commission’s guidelines were mandatory until the Supreme Court held in 2005 that a mandatory scheme violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and made the guidelines advisory. Mandatory minimums are enacted by Congress and place limits on the power of federal judges to reduce sentences below the levels set by Congress.
“Mandatory minimum sentences defeat the purposes of sentencing, create unwarranted racial disparity and over-crowd our prison system. They take discretion away from judges and give it to prosecutors who use these high sentences to frustrate constitutional rights,” said Rorty in his testimony today.
In 1991, the USSC delivered a report to Congress denouncing mandatory minimums and calling for their abolition. The report gathered widespread support from policymakers, judges and practitioners in the field of federal sentencing. But in the years since the report, Congress increased the number and length of mandatory minimum sentences.
The commission has historically set penalties at or above the levels dictated by Congress. The ACLU asked the USSC to assess the true harms of drug and other offenses carrying mandatory minimums and establish penalties that reflect a rational assessment of individual harms.
“We cannot continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. Instead, we must balance public safety with the need to assist individuals on the path to health and rehabilitation,” Rorty continued. “The commission is an expert body and can employ its knowledge and resources to craft fair and effective sentences. The commission should tell Congress to abolish the mandatory minimum sentencing structure and rely on the advisory guidelines to set policy.”
One mandatory minimum that Congress is poised to revise is that governing crack cocaine offenses. The law, which penalizes five grams of crack as harshly as 500 grams of cocaine, has been denounced by the ACLU, congressional leaders and the Obama Administration as racially unfair. The Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the 100:1 crack-powder ratio to 18:1, has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. The bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum for simple possession.
"Federal mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine have been a stain on our justice system for nearly 20 years,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The Fair Sentencing Act will allow Congress to take decisive action for the first time in reworking a mandatory minimum statute. Though the bill leaves a hefty and unnecessary disparity, it is a significant first step in the fight to equalize punishment for the same drug. Congress cannot miss this historic opportunity to bring about real and much-needed change for all Americans."
To read the ACLU’s statement, go to: www.aclu.org/drug-law-reform/aclu-statement-us-sentencing-commisssion-hearing-statutory-mandatory-minimum-penalti