Prosecutors Are behind Inconsistent Federal Sentencing Laws across U.S.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses were supposed to result in consistency within the U.S. judicial system when it came to punishing those caught using or selling illegal drugs. But the sentencing laws have not been consistently enforced, thanks to local prosecutors, some of whom have zealously punished small-time drug offenders.


“Prosecutors—not judges—effectively decide how long many drug criminals will spend behind bars,” Joseph Tanfani wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “Prosecutors have considerable discretion under the laws. If they cite the amount of drugs seized in the charging document, that can trigger the mandatory minimum; if they leave it out, it doesn’t.”


But this practice may start to change now that Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is encouraging prosecutors to move away from using sentencing laws to go after the “low-hanging fruit,” namely addicts and street dealers.


U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett is a critic of mandatory sentencing laws who has found “jaw-dropping, shocking disparity” in how prosecutors enforce the law. He has described the process as “both whimsical and arbitrary, like a Wheel of Misfortune.”


Bennett likes Holder’s idea, but wonders if his effort will succeed. “It sounds really good, but it depends on how it’s carried out in the field,” Bennett told the Times.


Holder is not the only person in Washington who wants the criminal justice system to take a different approach with drug offenders.


Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) are sponsoring bipartisan legislation to allow federal judges to disregard mandatory sentences.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Use of Tough Federal Sentencing Laws Varies Widely Nationwide (by Joseph Tanfani, Los Angeles Times)

Justice Department Moves to Equalize Cocaine Sentencing For All Races (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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