It was almost 20 years ago when the US Congress passed tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes, amid alarm over the devastation of crack cocaine. Mandatory minimum sentencing takes discretion away from the judge, in considering sentencing. Today, more than half of our federal prisoners are in on drug charges.
In an interview on NPR, a US District Judge looks back on mandatory minimum sentencing with regret. Not everyone shares his view. In a time when crime in New York is falling to 40-year lows, many are looking for cause-and-effect explanations for why it is happening. Is crime falling because the offenders are off the streets, due to long “tough on crime” sentences? Has stiff sentencing actually made the public safer?
The judge in this story claims that prosecutors use the threat of mandatory minimum sentences to coerce guilty pleas. Because of these plea bargains, only a small percentage of federal cases ever go to trial. The defendant takes a plea bargain, and never appears in front of a jury of his peers. There is something lost in the efficiency of that process.
Original story via National Public Radio
In a related story from New York, convicted robber and drug dealer Randy Washington turned down a 10-year plea deal and opted for a trial. He was convicted there, and faces a 50-year mandatory minimum sentence. The US District Judge in this case (not the same judge as above) pushed the prosecutor’s office to seek a reduced sentence, calling the 50-year mandatory term legal but unjust.