In his Aug. 31 op-ed article "Savage Sentences," Kyle O'Dowd, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, urges presidential candidate George W. Bush to "take a moral stance against sentencing laws that deny young adults a second chance at success." Mr. O'Dowd uses anecdotal evidence to argue that state and federal criminal justice systems lack forgiveness for "youthful mistakes."

As a former federal prosecutor in Virginia, I have seen many mandatory minimum terms imposed by the court. But since the creation of mandatory minimums in the federal system in the '80s, Congress has enacted legislation to give first-time federal drug traffickers more lenient treatment than those defendants who have criminal records.

This statute permits a judge to sentence first-time narcotics offenders to a reduced term of imprisonment where the defendant did not use violence, credible threats of violence, a firearm or dangerous weapon while committing the crime; where the crime did not result in death or serious bodily injury; where the defendant did not lead, manage, supervise or organize others in the commission of the crime; and where the defendant provided all information and evidence he or she possessed about the crime to law enforcement officials.

In addition, many criminal defendants are offered an opportunity to reduce their prison sentences by providing information about criminal activity conducted by other individuals. In some federal courts, defendants routinely receive a two-thirds cut in their terms of imprisonment for providing "substantial assistance" in the investigation and prosecution of other criminals. In many cases I prosecuted, the defendant's 10-year mandatory minimum sentence thus was reduced to three or four years.

Mr. O'Dowd's article also did not note a crucial distinction in federal laws between drug trafficking and drug use. Traffickers, and those who knowingly assist them, bear the brunt of law enforcement efforts and the brunt of mandatory minimum terms. In the federal system, a first-time conviction for possession rarely results in jail time.

Lengthy terms of imprisonment are caused by unrepentant and uncooperative individuals such as Lacy Davis, a cocaine dealer who was able to walk away from his first narcotics conviction -- involving a kilogram of cocaine -- by paying a fine because he was in a Maryland court that lacked mandatory minimum terms. Mr. Davis continued to deal cocaine until he got caught in Virginia in 1994 and was prosecuted in the federal system. He was ultimately sentenced to a 20-year mandatory minimum term.

Mr. O'Dowd says prison ruins the future of those imprisoned, but the bright futures of law-abiding citizens are worth protecting more than those who prey on them.

As for Mr. O'Dowd's argument that "treatment is eight times more effective than long sentences in reducing demand for drugs," even if this is true for users, it isn't true for dealers. The financial reward offered by narcotics trafficking is a much more powerful lure for some people than the alternative: years of education and disciplined hard work toward the attainment of a marketable skill or career.



The writer is an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.