Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on Wednesday urged the Senate to support a sweeping overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines, saying they are disproportionate to minorities.

“There is no justice here,” said the libertarian and potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate. “It is wrong and it needs to change.”

Paul recounted a few cases to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he learned about where mandatory minimums resulted in a miscarriage of justice.  Edward Clay was arrested for less than 2 ounces of cocaine.  As a first-time offender, his mandatory minimum was 10 years in prison.

“Each case should be judged on its own merits,” Paul said. “Mandatory minimums prevent this…”

Paul compared the mandatory minimum laws to the Jim Crow Era.  The Jim Crow laws were put into effect after the Civil War throughout the south to preserve racial segregation and unfairly treat minorities.

“If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting…”

“The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white,” he said, “but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino.”

Mandatory sentencing guidelines remove what is known as judicial discretion.  This is where judges and prosecutors can impose leniency.  Instead, severe penalties are sought across the board for low-level offenses.  At the hearing, Marc Levin, the policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative group that advocates for prison reform noted that Texas reduced its prison population through various means and instead expanded its concentration on recidivism-reducing programs and alternatives to incarceration.

Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor in Utah, testified that the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences has not led to the discovery of high-level dealers or leaders in drug organizations.  “They insulate themselves so the ‘mules’ and street-corner dealers either do not know who they are or do not have enough information…”

Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are the authors of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would allow judges to deliver sentences that deviate from the mandatory minimums in cases that follow certain criteria.

Paul decried the felony-voting block because people convicted of low-level felonies are barred from voting ever,

“I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college.  Thirty years later, he still can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box…I’m a convicted felon, and I guess I’ll always be one.’”

The two senators hope that this will help alleviate some prison overcrowding problems and bring down the exploding costs of prisons.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 218,000 federal prisoners.  That is more than 770% increase from 1980, when mandatory minimums were first put in place.  That’s just federal prisons.

The committee also heard from those who support mandatory minimums, like Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.  He said that mandatory minimums are useful tools for prosecutors, “Why now?  With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?”  Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also voiced his opposition, he said that the effort was noble, but “we have to be careful not to legislate by anecdote. We have all heard legal horror stories.”

Leahy pleaded with his colleagues to work together on the issue.  To bring home the impact of mandatory minimums on the people that the committee doesn’t see, he asked the dozen or so people who were present at the meeting to stand up if they had someone they knew in prison on a mandatory minimum sentence.  Family members who traveled from Montana, Texas, Utah, Illinois, and elsewhere all stood, clutching the photos of their loved ones as Sen. Leahy adjourned the hearing.

The “War on Drugs” or “getting tough on crime” was a movement in American politics that started in the 1970s.  Since then, America has become the leading nation in the world for incarcerating people and has been nicknamed the “incarceration nation”.  Roughly 500 of every 100,000 U.S. adults are involved in the justice system as prisoners of some kind.  This “tough on crime” attitude has led to tougher and tougher laws and an unforgiving atmosphere for those charged and/or convicted.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first step in what supporters hope will be legislative action.  The committee is looking at this bill and another that focuses on waiving mandatory minimum prison terms.  In the House, Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., have introduced a version of Paul and Leahy’s bill.  The House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has voiced doubt about the bill.

Recent studies have shown that less than 10% of Americans think the War on Drugs is helping America.  Americans have the highest rate of illegal drug consumption in the world, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and putting those people in prison doesn’t help anyone.

The most recent highly publicized case of mandatory minimums was Marissa Alexander.  A woman who claimed self-defense, but was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2012.  She fired a gun at her husband during a confrontation.  Court documents show that she unsuccessfully claimed Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as a defense.  Alexander got into an argument with Rico Gray, after Gray found a text message on her phone to her ex-husband.  She claimed that Gray initially prevented her from leaving, but she was able to get by him.  She then fled to the garage.  That’s when she realized that she didn’t have the car keys.  She retrieved a gun kept in the garage and then tried to re-enter the house to get her keys.  When Alexander went back inside, she claimed Gray continued to threaten her so she fired a “warning shot” through the house.  Rico, an admitted abuser of his girlfriends, became a key witness for the prosecution.

A jury found her guilty in less than 12 minutes.  According to Florida’s mandatory 10-20-Life (mandatory minimums) statutes, anyone who pulls a gun during a crime receives a mandatory 10-year sentence.  Firing a gun is a mandatory 20-year sentence.  Alexander, who was a first-time offender, received a mandatory 20 years in prison.

“Florida’s mandatory 10-20-life gun law forced the Court to impose an arbitrary, unjust and completely inappropriate sentence,” said Greg Newburn, Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that fights to repeal such laws. “As long as Florida keeps its inflexible gun sentencing laws, we will continue to see cases like Ms. Alexander’s.”

Angela Corey, the state attorney who oversaw the case against Alexander, said that justice was served and that Alexander was reckless not afraid that night.  “Just because no one was harmed in the incident doesn’t make the shooting any less a punishable crime,” according to Corey, “I feel like when someone fires a loaded gun inside of a home with two children standing in the direction where the bullet was fired, we have to have tough laws that say you don’t do that.  The fact that nobody got hurt has to be balanced with the fact that someone could have gotten hurt.”

If Alexander’s appeals are unsuccessful she will be required to serve her full term (parole also suffered a huge hit during the “tough on crime” era).  Her children will be 22 and 31 years of age when she is released.

As a result of the new push for mandatory minimum reform, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has promised not to pursue mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent drug offenses.  A day after the meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he issued new guidelines to prosecutors that will benefit people who haven’t been sentenced yet.

“I am pleased to announce today that the department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters,” Holder said, “but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt.  By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety. We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation. And we can do so while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”

It’s part of an effort to make sure the toughest sentences are reserved for more serious crimes, an idea abandoned during the “tough on crime” craze.  Holder also called for expanding the use of “compassionate release” of those incarcerated who “pose no threat to the public,” and the Justice Department is taking steps to identify practices for enhancing the use of drug treatment and community service programs as alternatives to jail.  Republican lawmakers in several states said they are on board because it saves money by reducing the prison size and curbs the government’s size.

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Comments
  1. JanCorey says:

    Mandatory-minimums only work for defendants who already have a felony record.

    Like

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