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Click here for more about mandatory minimum sentencing.


House Subcommittee Ponders Throwing Out Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses

As reported in a July 14, 2009 article by Talk Radio News Service's Aaron Richardson ("House Subcommittee Members Seek to Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenders"), "The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a meeting on Tuesday to consider legislation that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders." In fact, as reported in a press release circulated by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) on the same day ("Unusual Allies Call on Congress to Fit the Punishment to the Crime"), the hearing included discussion of three sentencing reform measures: Rep. Scott's H.R. 2934, or "the 'Common Sense in Sentencing Act of 2009;" H.R. 1466, sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters and dubbed the "Major Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2009;" and the "Ramos and Compean Justice Act of 2009," also known as H.R. 834 and sponsored by Republican Ted Poe of Texas.

While commonalities exist between all three bills, each addresses the issue differently. Scott's bill "would allow courts to sentence below a mandatory minimum where the sentence violates the principals of sentencing defined by statute: punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation." Waters' proposed legislation "would eliminate all mandatory sentences for drug offenses," and Poe's bill seeks to "amend [federal code] to exempt law enforcement officers from mandatory minimum sentences [...] for possessing or using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence," providing that the weapons are "carried [by officers] to perform their job[s] and [...] used in relation to the performance of [that] job." Thus, Waters' bill would implement the most radical and sweeping changes to mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, while Poe's bill lies on the far side of the spectrum and Scott's sits somewhere slightly left of center.

The Subcommitte heard convincing testimony from such strange bedfellows as activist group FAMM's President and Founder Julie Stewart and Republican Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Relief. Stewart told members that "What really motivated me to start [FAMM] was not the length of my brother Jeff's five-year mandatory sentence - it was witnessing the judge's inability to give my brother the sentence he wanted to." Stewart added, "At sentencing, the judge stated that his 'hands were tied,' by mandatory sentencing laws," which she says "seemed utterly un-American [and] still does." Although Stewart noted recent rulings that now allow judges to exercise degrees of discretion in certain drug-related cases where mandatory minimums could be utilized, she argued that current "Safety Valve" measures don't go far enough. For his part, Norquist backed up Stewart's assertion that "mandatory minimums are a failure" by reciting the words of late journalist and cultural critc H.L. Mencken: "'There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.'" Norquist continued, saying that, "Today, a generation later, it is increasingly clear that adoption of mandatory minimums, while neat and plausible responses to sentencing disparities, was the wrong solution." Norquist also cited the expense of such sentencing policies for taxpayers, testifying that, "Questioning the wisdom of mandatory minimums has nothing to do with being soft on crime. [...] But the government has a responsibility to use taxpayer money wisely[, and] I have concluded that [these] sentencing policies are not worth the high cost to America's taxpayers."

But Subcommittee members remained divided even after sitting through such convincing and bipartisan testimony. Although Waters told Talk Radio News that mandatory minimum sentences "have failed to accomplish the legislative intent of the 1986 anti drug abuse act," represent a "wast[e of] precious government resources," and have "had a desolate impact on the African-American community [...] for many, many years," her Texan colleague Rep. Louie Gohmert stated that "Judges should not be free to sentence felonies as misdemeanors. If there is no bottom to the range there will be more incidents where people will be killed or harmed because of light sentences."

However, with two House bills currently aimed at increasing judicial discretion or repealing mandatory minimums altogether, legislators will have the opportunity to utilize their own discretion if and when the measures move out of Committee. Interested parties can contact their Representatives to express their desire to see these measures progress to a full vote. To more closely follow this issue, keep an eye on FAMM's website and/or track the bills using GovTrack.

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