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The Battle Continues Over Rolling Back Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences

On behalf of Matthew Mankey

It now appears that there is little chance of Congress voting this year in favor of rolling back mandatory minimum drug sentencing guidelines.

Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Administration are still pushing forward with efforts to roll back mandatory minimum federal sentences for low-level and non-violent drug crime offenders. Indeed, the general public appears receptive to rolling back the harsh mandatory minimums. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Americans believe that the government should funnel more time and effort into providing treatment for drug users rather than prosecuting them in court. As to mandatory minimum sentences, 63 percent of those surveyed believe that moving away from stiff sentences for non-violent drug crimes is a good thing.

According to NPR, Congress is currently discussing proposals by the Attorney General that could cut minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes and give judges more sentencing discretion. Additionally, the proposals would retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous mandatory sentencing guidelines. The current mandatory minimums were the result of actions taken by Congress in the 1980s to deal with what it viewed as the alarming rise in cocaine use. Although the avowed intent was to get major drug traffickers off the streets, the result has been that thousands of non-violent offenders, in Minnesota and nationally, have been swept up in the dragnet and end up serving more time than many convicted for murder or rape.

Critics of the current sentencing guidelines say that one major problem with imprisoning non-violent drug crime offenders is the fiscal burden. NPR reports that 36 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget is now dedicated to maintaining the federal prisons. The amount spent on prisons by the DOJ has doubled since 2000. Due to the fact that so much money is being used to imprison non-violent drug offenders, funding for other federal law enforcement initiatives-such as addressing the growing threat posed by cybercrime-has languished. Additionally, there is the human dimension. Minnesotans imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes cannot raise their families nor hold jobs to provide financial support for their families.

Opposition Emerges

The Economist Magazine notes that the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys urged senators not to weaken the benefits offered by mandatory minimum sentencing. One of these “benefits” is using the possibility of harsh sentences to coax defendants into cooperating with prosecutors in order to get at drug kingpins. There was also opposition to reform within the Obama Administration with Attorney General Holder reportedly at odds with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s administrator over the scope of the proposed sentencing reforms.

Former DOJ and DEA officials have been increasingly vocal in urging the Senate to defeat any attempt to roll back the mandatory minimums if it comes up for a vote. Perhaps more importantly, several conservative Republican senators recently announced their staunch opposition to reforming mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. According to the New York Times, this last minute congressional opposition suggests that progress on sentencing reform may have stalled this year and will likely have to be postponed for consideration until 2015.

Dealing With Charges

Being charged with a federal drug crime is a very serious matter. If you are charged with a drug crime you need to contact a Minnesota attorney experienced in handling criminal defense cases as soon as possible. Federal prosecutors have a well-deserved reputation for being extremely aggressive in vigorously prosecuting drug crimes and seeking harsh sentences. An attorney will review the circumstances of your arrest to determine whether your constitutional rights were violated and with an eye toward developing defenses to the charges made against you.

Keywords: drug charges, mandatory minimum sentences