Leonardo Rapadas' Aug. 7 opinion piece, "Mandatory minimum sentences keep streets safe," has no scientific basis. Richard Rosenfeld, writing in the Feb. 2004 Scientific American, says that tough sentencing is only one of many contributing causes, and that mandatory minimum sentences may actually do more harm than good in the long run because they "deplete the social capital of those communities hardest hit by both crime and imprisonment."
His article is "The case of the unsolved crime decline." He agrees that serious violent and property crime rates tumbled by more than 40 percent in the 1990s, but he does not assign credit to one cause. Serious examination requires that the data be broken out by city size, year of crime, policing practices, sentencing policy and race/age/gender of perpetrator and victim, etc.
Possible explanations for reduced youth crime appears to be the shrinking demand for crack in the 1990s, as addicts either quit or died and young users opted for marijuana. The best single explanation for reduced adult crime appears to be the expansion of domestic violence resources, such hot lines, shelters and judicial protection orders.
The crime reduction seen as the 1990s unrolled probably had several overlapping causes, but is unlikely that mandatory sentencing was one of them.
Rosenfeld is professor in and chair of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
John Chase, Palm Harbor, Fla. (John is a long-time member
of the November Coalition. The editorial below prompted his well-reasoned
response - ed.)
August 7, 2004 - The Pacific Daily News (Guam)
OPED: Mandatory Minimum Sentences Keep Streets Safe
By Leonardo M. Rapadas, U.S. Attorney for the districts of Guam and the Northern Marianas.
Criminal sentencing has been in the headlines a lot during the past few weeks, ever since the Supreme Court's Blakely decision put into jeopardy a system that has dramatically increased the safety of all Americans. Now there's another threat looming over the tough but fair guidelines that determine how much time hardened criminals spend in prison, and amazingly it's being marketed as "smart on crime."
In reality, it's nothing less than a retreat from the fight to ensure our safety and that of our communities.
Over the past 20 years, Congress has passed tough but fair mandatory minimum sentences for certain particularly dangerous crimes -- preying sexually on children, using a gun to commit a violent crime and drug trafficking -- and for criminals who stubbornly continue breaking laws despite repeated convictions.
These ensure that the worst criminals stay behind bars for meaningful periods of time, keeping them off our streets and away from our families, and making would-be offenders think twice about risking a long prison sentence.
What are the results? Since this common-sense sentencing policy was created, our families are much safer than they were in previous decades, and we can see the difference: crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Look at it this way: If crime rates had stayed at 1993 levels, more than 27.5 million extra violent crimes would have been expected. The bottom line is that tough sentencing works.
That's why mandatory minimum laws repeatedly have been enacted by Congress, why they are consistently supported by presidents from both parties and why tough sentencing enjoys widespread public support.
But now some critics are trying to repeal the laws that establish mandatory minimum sentences. One of them, the American Bar Association, is poised to demand that state and federal mandatory minimum laws be discarded -- in other words, that we go back to the failed policies of the high-crime past. ABA president Dennis Archer says mandatory minimums just aren't cost-effective.
Critics claim that mandatory minimums routinely impose long sentences on young, low-level offenders. They ignore the fact that Congress long ago created a "safety valve" provision that exempts low-level, non-violent offenders without a record from the mandatory minimums. Even offenders who don't qualify for this safety valve can avoid a mandatory minimum sentence by helping law enforcement's investigation or prosecution of another offender.
Opponents also argue that "non-violent drug offenders" should be exempted from mandatory minimum sentences. This disregards the pervasive violence and harm to society that inevitably accompanies the market for illegal drugs. Drug trafficking is a leading cause of violence on American streets, and drug abuse destroys lives. In 1998, for example, 61,000 convicted inmates -- by their own admission-- had committed their crime to get money for drugs, and fully a third of state inmates had committed their crime while on drugs. Drug offenders contribute to violence in a very real way.
Another group trying to turn back the clock on sentencing is Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which offers as a "profile of injustice" the nine-year sentence imposed on Leeann Nguyen Downum by the U.S. District Court in Guam. According to FAMM's Web site, after a flight from Hawaii to Guam, Downum was caught with a bag containing methamphetamine, which she was carrying on someone else's behalf.
Downum was prosecuted by the office that I now lead, and FAMM's sympathetic tale of woe is in some respects false and in others highly misleading.
To begin with, mandatory minimum laws played no role in setting Downum's sentence. Rather, she received the benefit of the "safety valve" provision that allowed her to be sentenced below the otherwise-applicable mandatory minimum. In addition, while she claimed that she had not packed the drug bag and did not know that it contained drugs, she failed a polygraph examination on both assertions. This sort of misinformation is typical and unfortunate.
Mandatory minimum sentences are a critical tool to protect our communities. We already have experimented with early release for parole, rehabilitation rather than incarceration, and wide judicial discretion to impose little or no jail time -- the very policies the ABA and FAMM now advocate. These policies failed to prevent crimes or promote safer streets in the past. They would fail again today.
The legacy of mandatory minimum sentences is clear: These tough but fair sentences are taking habitual lawbreakers off the street, they are locking up the most dangerous criminals and they are ensuring the safety of ordinary Americans. We need mandatory minimum sentences, and we must resist the misguided calls for their repeal. After all, it would hardly be "smart on crime" to swear off the instruments of America's recent success.
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