News Release

U.S. Criminal Lawyers Warn Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Schemes

Washington, DC (August 16, 2010) – The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) urged the Government of Canada to abandon bipartisan efforts to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses at its annual meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Saturday. The association’s Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution reiterating its long-held position that mandatory sentencing schemes waste lives, families and scarce public resources, and deprive the judicial branch of its inherent authority to fashion appropriate sentences that fit the offender and the offense.

The proposed Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act, S-10, offers little help to serious drug addicts, instead proposing flawed drug treatment programs stressing abstinence that do little to prevent relapse.

“Until recently, a hallmark of the Canadian sentencing process had always been the judicial discretion to impose a sentence that is fit and just in the circumstances of a particular case,” Criminal Lawyers Association President Paul Burstein, a Toronto lawyer, told the NACDL Board at the meeting. “Mandatory minimum sentences are a cowardly way to tell judges that the government does not trust them to do their job.”

Incoming NACDL President Jim E. Lavine, of Houston, TX, observed that it is natural for American and Canadian citizens alike to want to punish offenders and remove them from society for a period of time. “Except,” he added, “when the moral values we teach the next generation are proven wrong, and the social and fiscal costs become prohibitive. Then we have to admit that mistakes were made, and our generation made them.”

“The mandatory minimum sentence concept was just such a mistake made by American legislatures. We sincerely hope that Canada does not make the same mistake and have to suffer its consequences,” he said.

Mandatory minimum sentences waste public resources warehousing nonviolent drug offenders without “reduc[ing] drug addiction or the problems associated with drug use, thus having scant impact on the reduction of drug use and crime,” the resolution states. More than two decades of experience in the United States have proven that the substantial costs of incarcerating drug offenders would be better used “to fund drug treatment and harm reduction programs, alternatives to incarceration, employment opportunities and human services.”

Mandatory sentences in the United States have produced unduly harsh and disproportionate sentences that disregard the individual’s circumstances and culpability, transferred sentencing discretion from judges to prosecutors, inhibited defendants from exercising their right to trial through coercive plea bargains, and have greatly exacerbated racial disparities in the nation’s state and federal criminal justice systems. States that enacted mandatory sentencing schemes in the 1970s and 1980s such as Michigan and New York have recognized the ineffectiveness and costliness of mandatory minimums and have since repealed or limited the applicability of such sentences, the resolution notes. The lawyers urge Canada not to make the same mistakes.

The resolution urges the government to reallocate the money intended for S-10 to fund drug treatment and social programs better designed to ameliorate addiction. It also notes that NACDL has a broad international membership including 75 Canadian attorneys and six Canadian affiliate organizations.

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To view the resolution, please click here.

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NACDL Communications Department

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.