Last Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Committee took its first steps to overhaul the country’s mandatory minimum-sentencing guidelines, laws that have been shown to disproportionately affect young people and minorities.
The hearing was called to discuss legislation drafted by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), legislation that would allow judges greater latitude in sentencing for convicted criminals. In an impassioned testimony that touched on issues of race and economic class, Sen. Paul expressed his support for the overhaul.
“The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected young black males,” said Paul. “The ACLU reports that blacks are four to five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession, although surveys indicate that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same similar rate. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of the people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."
“Why are arrest rates so lopsided?” he continued. “Because it’s frankly easier to go into the urban areas and make arrests than it is to go into suburban areas.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing refers to criminal penalties that require a specific minimum length of prison time. For example, under federal law, the possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine yields an automatic five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense. Mandatory minimum sentencing largely emerged in the 1950s to combat drug offenses. However, it was in the 1980s, in part as a response to the crack cocaine epidemic, that the laws really took off. Often times a person will face several of these sentences at once, a practice known as “stacking.”
Since the 1980s, a major problem with the federal guidelines has been the lack of discretion given to judges. According to the ACLU, “mandatory sentences don’t allow judges to reduce a defendant’s sentence based on any number of mitigating factors, including circumstances of the case or a person’s role, motivation, or likelihood of repeating the crime.” This leads to a system in which prosecutors essentially have more power than judges in determining how long a person will spend in prison.
“Under mandatory sentencing laws, prosecutors have control over sentencing because they have unreviewable authority to decide what charges to pursue,” says the ACLU. “This approach to sentencing is unfair.”
Judiciary Committee Chairperson Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), an outspoken critic of mandatory minimum sentencing, has made clear that the guidelines have a strong impact on young people in particular. “When you remove discretion from judges,” Leahy told PolicyMic, “you’re going to have bad mistakes. And if you’re a young person, those mistakes will never be corrected in your lifetime.”
Sen. Leahy was not the only member of the committee to sound off to PolicyMic on the subject. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), a Tea Party sensation, also expressed his concern about how young people are affected by the guidelines: “One could argue that, particularly if you get stacked mandatory minimums, a young person stands to forfeit a much larger percentage of one’s life, of his or her life, than an older person. So if you get those stacked sentences, it could end up taking up most of your life.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also a member of the Judiciary Committee, echoed the sentiments of his colleagues.
“What we’re finding is we’ve established under the law, as it says, mandatory minimum sentencing that doesn’t make sense," he told PM. "There are some crimes that are committed where the judges need more latitude, particularly those that are non-violent in nature."
“And unfortunately,” he continued, "the law is written in a way that they have no latitude. People are incarcerated for decades — literally for decades — over non-violent crimes, many involving drugs…We want to try to re-balance the system and look at some of the state examples that have worked well. We’re also finding that when it comes to some of this sentencing, there are gross disparities based on race and ethnic background. [We’re] trying [our] best to give more latitude to lead toward fairer sentencing.”
When asked whether mandatory minimum sentencing disproportionately affected young people, Sen. Durbin’s answer was unequivocal.
“It does. It does, because they’re the ones most likely to come into the criminal justice system. And they make mistakes. Young people make mistakes. Some of them are very serious, and are treated seriously. But others don’t need to be incarcerated nearly as long as the law currently requires.”
Not all members of the panel agreed, however. When asked to comment on how the guidelines affect millennials, ranking committee member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) disagreed with the question.
“I think that it would be wrong,” he stated, “to segment our society by age or by group, because you’ve got to look at the individual and the crime and make the judgment based on the individual and the crime. I wouldn’t divide it by age or anything. I’d look at the individual and the crime.”
According to the Associated Press, while no legislation has been presented in the House for consideration, "Wednesday's hearing was the first step in what supporters hope will be legislative action by the end of the year." Were this proposal to become law, it would mark a significant step towards greater equality in the American criminal justice system.