Tony Newman at (212) 613-8026 or Elizabeth Mendez Berry at (212) 613-8036
In a speech yesterday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales voiced his support for strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws. His statements contradict the sentiments of a wide range of increasingly vocal experts, including the American Bar Association, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and each of the 11 Federal Judicial Circuits. Each have criticized mandatory minimum sentences for tying judges’ hands and forcing them to impose outrageously long sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Mr. Gonzales indicated that judges were being too lenient in their sentencing of serious criminals. While Gonzales paints a picture of violent criminals being treated gently, in reality, a significant proportion of those incarcerated in federal prison are first time, non-violent drug offenders.
According to data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2003, more than one-third (34.3%) of federal prisoners are first-time non-violent offenders. Half (55%) of the federal prison population are serving time for a drug offense. More than 70% of federal inmates are non-violent offenders with no history of violence.
“We’ve had enough ‘get tough’ rhetoric. We now need ‘get smart’ solutions. Mandatory minimums are sold to the public as a tool to put away kingpins, but the fact is that more than 70% of people who are doing astronomical amounts of time are non-violent offenders,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “In addition to tearing people’s families apart, we are wasting precious resources on draconian sentences.”
Federal sentencing guidelines have been in place for nearly two decades and were long-treated by courts as tight strictures. In January, the Supreme Court ruled in the Booker/Fanfan cases that courts have broad discretion to fashion appropriate sentences under the guidelines.
“Congress should use the Supreme Court decision as an opportunity to right a system that is so clearly wrong. Many states are taking innovative steps to deal with non-violent drug offenders–and they’re having success with it,” added Piper. In 2000, California enacted Proposition 36, which annually diverts 35,000 people from jails and prisons into drug treatment, saving thousands of lives and billions of taxpayer dollars