From an address by Judge William Schwartzer, director of the Federal Judicial Center, in Washington last month:
What I want to discuss with you is ... the mandatory minimum sentencing law which Congress adopted as part of the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986. By that act Congress meant to reform sentencing for drug offenses by making sure that leniency would never raise its head. It put aside the relatively finely tuned guideline scheme it had just adopted and created a scheme under which the sentence followed automatically from the quantity and nature of the drug involved in the offense of conviction. Thus, for example, a conviction of an offense involving five grams of crack results in a minimum sentence of five years, 50 grams in a minimum of 10 years ... if the defendant had three prior drug offenses, no matter how minor, it's mandatory life without parole.
The judge is barred from imposing a lesser sentence regardless of the circumstances, unless the government asks for it on the basis of the defendant's cooperation. It doesn't matter that the defendant in the case involving 50 grams of crack may have only been a look out, or a driver, may not have had anything to do with arranging the deal ...
Drugs of course are an evil which we must fight with vigor and determination. But this sentencing reform is inflicting great evils on the federal courts. It is clogging the courts by forcing to trial many defendants who would have otherwise pleaded guilty and by bringing into federal court many state cases in which the prosecutors seek the benefit of much heavier federal sentences.
And, in the long run worst of all, it represents another politically seductive reform premised on diminishing the federal judiciary.