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Sentences on Trial
Congress can reenact a proud moment in its history by dumping strict mandatory minimums.

Friday, October 10, 2008

YOGI BERRA could have written a recently released report on the failure of mandatory minimum sentences.

The report, published by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), chronicles lawmakers' rush in the 1950s to enact tough mandatory minimum sentences for what they saw as the viral spread of illegal drugs throughout the country. The most frightening of these substances, marijuana, was blamed for a rise in "sadistic" murders and gruesome sex crimes.

Twenty years later, during the administration of Republican President Richard M. Nixon, many of these mandatory minimums were repealed after lawmakers gathered enough evidence to show that they did not reduce crime or drug consumption and that they served primarily to usurp the power of judges to tailor punishments to crimes. The stiff sentences also resulted in unconscionably long sentences for nonviolent offenders. Reliance on education to prevent drug use, rehabilitation to help addicts kick the habit and sentencing schemes that restored flexibility to judges -- including the flexibility to hand down tougher sentences than required under mandatory minimum statutes -- replaced irrational, tough-on-crime posturing. According to the report, no Republican was kicked out of office for supporting the changes.

That these lessons were forgotten a mere decade later bring to mind one of Mr. Berra's more famous observations: It's deja vu all over again. As the FAMM report explains, in the 1980s Congress again turned to mandatory minimums to combat a growing and admittedly frightening problem involving another relatively unknown drug, crack cocaine, and the crime wave that accompanied it. The result: Judges were forced to sentence first-time nonviolent offenders to unconscionably long prison terms. Under these new laws, a first-time offender caught with five grams of crack faced a mandatory sentence of five years behind bars; if caught with 10 grams, he faced a mandatory sentence of 10 years, with no possibility of parole. A defendant would have to have been caught with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine to trigger similar punishment.

No one expected lawmakers to address this problem in an election year. But they should revisit mandatory minimums and consider their repeal, as their predecessors did in 1970, once a new administration takes over. This is one time when history repeating itself would be a blessing.

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