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August 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Mandatory Minimums at Heart of Unintended Consequences

Mandatory minimum sentencing has become “a blunt and inflexible tool,” said Chief Judge Julie Carnes (N.D. Ga.), chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law, at a House hearing last month. She told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security that such sentences lack “the ability to meaningfully distinguish between serious offenders and those who are substantially less culpable.”

The subcommittee hearing topic was “Mandatory Minimums and Unintended Consequences.” Carnes provided a judicial perspective on the more than 170 federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes now in effect.

Testifying with Carnes on mandatory minimum sentencing were Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Michael J. Sullivan, former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council; and Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation. Their testimony is available at http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_090714.html.

“For more than 50 years, the Judicial Conference has consistently and vigorously opposed mandatory minimum sentencing,” Carnes told the subcommittee. The Conference’s opposition derives “not from a narrow defense of a district judge’s prerogatives but from a recognition, gained through years of experience, that mandatory minimum sentencing provisions have created untenable results and that they simply do not hang together in any coherent or rational way,” she said.

Carnes noted that, because current mandatory minimum sentencing provisions “typically focus on one factor only, they sweep quite broadly. Therefore, a severe penalty that might be appropriate for the most egregious of offenders will likewise be required for the least culpable violator.” As an example, she cited a mandatory minimum statute that would impose a 20-year sentence not only on the kingpin who had organized and operated an extensive drug trafficking ring, but also on the manual laborer hired to off load a shipment of that kingpin’s drugs.

Although in some cases the mandatory penalty may well be appropriate, according to Carnes, in many other cases the prescribed sentence will be disproportionate to the offense that was committed. “Some of these statutes do not produce merely questionable results; instead, a few produce truly bizarre outcomes,” she said.

She cited the case of Weldon Angelos (United States v. Angelos), a 24-year old, first-time offender who was facing a term of six to eight years under the sentencing guidelines for his sale of marijuana to undercover agents on three occasions. However, because the defendant brought, but did not use, a gun to two of the drug deals, and because he kept firearms at his home, prosecutors invoked a mandatory minimum statute that required the trial judge to sentence this first-offender to 55 years in prison.

Noting the corrosive effect that some mandatory minimum statutes can have, Carnes indicated that the “robotic” imposition of sentences viewed as unfair or irrational greatly undermines respect for the judicial system and undercuts the sentencing guidelines system that Congress also has created. She concluded by expressing the Judicial Conference’s support of Congress’ efforts to ameliorate the “deleterious and unintended consequences” fostered by these statutes.

Read Carnes’ full House hearing testimony at www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/2009/JudgeCarnesMM0714.pdf.