11-Point Plan for Social Justice – The pressing need to change mandatory minimum sentences

20176334-mmmainOne of the biggest social injustices the American government has ever perpetrated against its own people is the passage of laws that impose mandatory minimum sentences.

The American judicial system is based on the belief that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and if found guilty, a just sentence. But how fair can the sentence be if the law requires a judge to issue an arbitrary sentence without regard to the facts of the case.

Most mandatory minimums laws were passed as an effort to combat the “crack epidemic” in the 1980’s. Members of Congress and state legislatures felt that these laws would aid in putting high level drug lords in prison for longer periods of time and discourage others from entering the drug trade.

The problem is that they place arbitrary sentencing requirements on judges and rob them of the ability to tailor the sentence to fit the crime.

These laws have filled our prisons with low level drug offenders, who, due to conspiracy laws, often receive longer sentences than drug kingpins.

These sentencing requirements disproportionately affect people of color. While the controlled substances act deems crack and cocaine to be the same thing, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 placed a mandatory sentence of 5 years for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine. It would take one hundred times as much powder cocaine (5oo grams) to receive a mandatory sentence of 5 years.

These laws have had a disproportionate effect on the black community because the majority of crack users are black and the majority of cocaine users are white.

Fortunately, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, altered these guidelines to bring them a little closer to even, but the new guidelines still require eighteen times more powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory sentence.

Mandatory minimum laws encourage others to misrepresent the facts in court.

The practice of reducing sentences for those accused of a crime if they testify against others does, at times, reveal important facts of the case that might not otherwise come out in court. However, it is more likely that the accused criminal will do whatever is necessary to cover their own backside.

The fact is these laws violate the constitution because the mandatory requirement violates the principle of checks and balances because it limits the courts ability to challenge the legislature on the issue and to punish someone with these one size fits all sentencing requirements, without regard to the facts of the case, violates the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Even if you overlook the constitutional issues, these laws simply do not make sense.

Recently in Alabama, Lee Carroll Brooker, a 76-year-old Army veteran was arrested when police found that he was growing 34 marijuana plants on property owned by his son.

Even though the prosecution admits (in court documents) that Mr. Brooker was growing the marijuana for his own personal medical use, the fact that the weight of the plants was more than 2.2 pounds automatically called for a charge of trafficking. Since Mr. Brooker had been convicted of 2 counts of armed robbery more than 30 years ago, the trafficking charge dictated that he be charged under Alabama’s habitual offender law, which required the court to sentence a 76-year-old-man to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Regardless of Mr. Brookers past record, the sentence is completely asinine.

It should not be a crime for anyone to grow marijuana on private property for personal medical use, it certainly shouldn’t act to trigger an automatic life sentence.

The judge in Brookers trial, Larry Anderson, said, “”If the court could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would. However, the law is very specific … there is no discretion.” Even Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, said that the sentence was “excessive and unjustified.”

When the trial judge and the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, think that a law is unjust, it is time to put aside the rhetoric and fix the problem.

An individual’s past criminal record should play an important part in a judge’s decision in regard to sentencing, but it is a judge’s job to ensure that everyone receives a just sentence and someone’s past criminal record should never force a judge to issue a ruling that he or she feels is unjust.

That is why as senator, I would sponsor legislation to remove mandatory minimums from federal law and pressure the states into following suit by limiting federal dollars for law enforcement and corrections until the states reform their own laws.

 


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