The United States currently has the world's highest incarceration rate. One of the main contributors to this recognition is the country's mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. Mandatory minimum sentences are inflexible binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of a particular crime. Unfortunately, these sentences that were originally created as a "one-size-fits-all" solution for sentencing disparities are now coming up short of expectation. Recently, there has been a growing recognition that this approach has not worked for reasons of both fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons. As a result of this recognition, many people are trying to take action to fix this.
A conviction for drug distribution under the federal Controlled Substances Act can carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. "If death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance," however, the mandatory minimum sentence doubles to 20 years.
Mandatory minimum sentences were once created as a "one-size-fits-all" solution for sentencing disparities. However, these sentences have recently been recognized as coming up short of these expectations. This recognition arises from reasons such as the fairness of the sentences and the expense of running federal prisons. There have been a number of bills floated recently that attempt to reduce these sentences.
In the federal criminal justice system some 97 percent of all defendants plead guilty -- but are they, really? A recent study by Human Rights Watch certainly casts some doubt in federal drug cases.
In a major speech on drug charges and mandatory minimums to the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association on August 12, 2013, United States Attorney General Eric Holder amplified that message by stating that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason"; and that "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation." Among the many memorable highlights of his speech, AG Holder made the following observations:
The Kupa decision by District Judge John Gleeson of the E.D.N.Y. is an amazing and memorable indictment of the "illegitimate" and deeply entrenched practice of federal prosecutors who use the sentencing enhancements, known as mandatory minimums, authorized by 21 U.S.C. § 851 as a "sledgehammer" to coerce defendants into accepting guilty pleas in drug charges rather than going to trial.
Following up on his recent proposals to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug crimes involving non-violent, low-level drug offenders, United States Attorney General Eric Holder has now issued a new directive to all Assistant United States Attorneys advising them how to apply the new policies retroactively.
A juvenile defendant is an individual under the age of 18 who is facing charges within the juvenile justice system. Unlike the criminal justice system (i.e. adult court), the juvenile justice system is geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. Thus, the detention or incarceration of a juvenile defendant is considered a last resort.
In a federal drug case, United States v. Cortes, No. 12-50137 (9th Cir. Oct. 9, 2013), the Ninth Circuit reversed a conviction for conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, finding an error with the judge's instruction to the jury on the defense of entrapment and holding that a sentencing entrapment claim must be tried to the jury when that claim will affect the minimum or maximum sentence.
Two bills currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee and at least one in the House of Representatives -- all bipartisan -- are taking aim at our nation's current sentencing policy. In particular, the three proposals seek to curtail the cost and injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing in federal crimes.