Attorney General Jeff Sessions is wrong. Mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea and they undermine justice by throwing a one-size-fits-all solution at a problem with an infinity of variables. They prevent judges from doing their jobs -administering justice that fits the crime - and they subvert local control.
“In a memo to staff, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to ‘charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense’ - a move that marks a significant reversal of Obama-era policies on low-level drug crimes,” NPR reported last week. “The two-page memo, which was publicly released Friday, lays out a policy of strict enforcement that rolls back the comparatively lenient stance established by Eric Holder, one of Sessions’ predecessors under President Barack Obama.”
Here’s what the memo says:
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
It sounds as if Sessions wants the government to get tough on crime. And that’s good, as far as it goes. But mandatory minimums are well-intentioned - yet ultimately misguided - efforts by legislators to crack down on crime.
First, one size never fits all. Passing mandatory minimum legislation makes for good politics, but not good policy. Every criminal case is different, and judges should have the power to tailor their rulings to each specific case and each specific defendant. We must not bind the judges’ hands with mandatory minimums or a three-strikes rule.
Next, conservatives believe in local control and accountability - and these are best served by eliminating mandatory minimums. This is particularly true in Texas, where our judges are elected (not appointed). If we don’t like the sentences they hand down, we can let them know directly - at the ballot box.
Historically, mandatory minimums are a reaction to bad sentencing practices that come to light from time to time.
“The Armed Career Criminal Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 are the two principal modern federal statutes requiring mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment - but they are by no means the only ones,” explains the Heritage Foundation. “Mandatory minimums have proliferated and have increased in severity. Since 1991, the number of mandatory minimums has more than doubled. Entirely new types of offenses have become subject to mandatory minimums, from child pornography to identity theft. During that period, the percentage of offenders convicted of violating a statute carrying a mandatory minimum of 10 years increased from 34.4 percent to 40.7 percent.”
This has led to increasing examples of injustice.
“ A financially desperate single mother of four with no criminal history was paid $100 by a complete stranger to mail a package that, unbeknownst to her, contained 232 grams of crack cocaine,” Heritage notes. “For that act alone, she received a sentence of 10 years in prison even though the sentencing judge felt that this punishment was completely unjust and irrational.”
Mandatory minimums don’t work.