Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Reform Introduced
Bill would protect low-level drug law violators
from mandatory minimum sentencing
From the Drug Policy Foundation*
|Responding to calls from three
Supreme Court justices and scores of federal judges, Rep. Maxine
Waters (D-CA) has introduced a bill that would abolish nearly
all drug-related federal mandatory minimum sentences (MMS).
Rep. Waters' bill, H.R. 1681, has slim chances of passage
in a Republican-controlled Congress, but is landmark legislation
because it is part of a significant change in the way policymakers
are thinking about sentencing.
"For the first time in years, Congress is taking note
of how our mandatory sentencing laws are filling our prisons
without producing the intended decrease in drug use or supply,"
Drug Policy Foundation Policy Analyst Rob Stewart said.
Scores of federal judges have refused to hear drug cases in
protest of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. And within the
last few years, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Chief
Justice William Rehnquist, all Republican appointees, and Stephen
Breyer, a Democratic appointee have also found mandatory minimums
to be a flawed sentencing system. Kennedy has called them "imprudent,
unwise and often an unjust mechanism."
"A more complete solution would be to abolish mandatory
minimums," Breyer said in November at the University of
Nebraska College of Law.
Conservative criminologist John DiIulio, once one of the staunchest
proponents of long mandatory sentences, has recently written
in support of the abolition of MMS.
"With mandatory minimums, there is no real suppression
of the drug trade, only episodic substance-abuse treatment of
incarcerated drug-only offenders, and hence only the most tenuous
crime-control rationale for imposing prison termsmandatory
or otherwiseon any of them," DiIulio wrote in
the National Review in May.
Mandatory minimums also disproportionately affect minorities.
African Americans make up 12 percent of the population and roughly
the same percentage of drug users, but they are 33 percent of
federal drug convictions. The average drug sentence for African
Americans is now 49 percent higher than sentences for the same
offense for whites.
The irony of this change in sentencing thought is who's doing
the thinking and who's doing the legislating. The Republicans
in Congress are ignoring the advice of their own thinkers. Instead,
a liberal Democrat, Waters, has seized the issue.
H.R. 1681 - BILL SUMMARY
SPONSOR: Rep Waters, Maxine (introduced 05/04/99)
SHORT TITLE(S) AS INTRODUCED:
Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 1999
OFFICIAL TITLE AS INTRODUCED:
A bill to concentrate Federal resources aimed at the prosecution
of drug offenses on those offenses that are major.
May 4, 1999
Ms. WATERS introduced the following bill; which was referred
to the Committee on the Judiciary, and in addition to the Committee
on Commerce, for a period to be subsequently determined by the
Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as
fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned
Congress makes the following findings:
(1) Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for
drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget increased by
more than 1,350 percent, from $220,000,000 in 1986 to about $3,019,000,000
(2) Mandatory minimums have not reduced sentencing discretion,
but rather have transferred discretion from judges to prosecutors.
Prosecutors, not judges, have the discretion to reduce a charge,
accept or deny a plea bargain, reward or deny a defendant's substantial
assistance or cooperation in the prosecution of someone else,
and ultimately, to determine the final sentence of the defendant.
(3) African Americans comprise 12 percent of the United States
population, 15 percent of drug users, 17 percent of cocaine users,
but 33 percent of all Federal drug convictions and 57 percent
of Federal cocaine convictions.
(4) In 1986, before the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine
offenses became effective, the average Federal offense for African
Americans was 11 percent higher than whites. Following the implementation
of mandatory drug sentencing laws, the average drug offense sentence
for African Americans was 49 percent higher than whites.
(5) The average dealer holds a low-wage job and sells part
time to obtain for his or her own use.
(6) According to the Justice Department, the time spent in
prison does not affect recidivism rates.
APPROVAL OF CERTAIN PROSECUTIONS BY ATTORNEY GENERAL.
A Federal prosecution for an offense under the Controlled
Substances Act, the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act,
or for any conspiracy to commit such an offense, where the offense
involves the illegal distribution or possession of a controlled
substance in an amount less than that amount specified as a minimum
for an offense under section 401(b)(1)(A) of the Controlled Substances
Act (21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A)) or, in the case of any substance
containing cocaine or cocaine base, in an amount less than 500
grams, shall not be commenced without the prior written approval
of the Attorney General.
*The Drug Policy Foundation, having merged with the Lindesmith
Center is now the Drug Policy