Ill-Served by Harsh Minimums

 Ill-Served By Harsh Minimums

St Petersburg Times (Florida)
May 17, 2005

When the U.S. Supreme Court told federal judges earlier this year that they were no longer legally obligated to follow federal sentencing guidelines, many legal observers wondered what kinds of changes in sentencing would result.

The answer, according to research by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, is almost none. Federal judges are essentially sticking to the ranges prescribed by the guidelines at the same rate as they had prior to the high court's ruling.

But that hasn't stopped the House of Representatives from rushing to strip federal judges of their new discretion. In a series of sweeping bills, the House would create a new batch of harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

In the Gang Prevention and Community Protection Act, which passed the House on Wednesday, the definition of gang-related crime would be sharply expanded and penalties would significantly increase. An anti-drug trafficking measure would similarly increase penalties for federal drug crimes involving minors. And a judicial safety measure would establish new penalties for courthouse crimes. All of these bills dictate minimum sentences.

Criminals who commit violent acts and those who repeatedly offend deserve long prison sentences. But experience with mandatory minimums at both the
state and federal level has demonstrated they can be unfair. Politicians pass one-size-fits-all measures to appear tough on crime, but those who suffer the most are often the least culpable.

The organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums has documented a long list of cases where people have been severly punished for playing minor
roles in crime. Sentences of 10, 15, 20 years or more in prison are not uncommon for someone - often a wife or girlfriend of a drug runner - who is a nonviolent, first-time offender and an incidental participant in the crime. Under minimum sentencing rules, judges have no capacity to fashion sentences to fit individual cases. All the power is shifted to the prosecutor, who determines what offenses to charge.

These proposed laws have less to do with dispensing justice than with conservative Republicans' hostility toward the federal judiciary. They represent the lingering anger of some GOP leaders over the Terri Schiavo matter and other court rulings. The Senate should refuse to go along.


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