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Federal crimes: Mandatory minimum sentencing far from consistent

"Drug kingpins -- I haven't seen one yet."

That remark comes courtesy of a federal judge seeking to make a less than salutary point about the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing outcomes in cases involving federal crimes.

Mandatory minimums surfaced in 1986 pursuant to legislation passed by Congress fueled by the fervor of many Americans in the so-called "War on Crime" to incarcerate drug offenders across the country, including in Missouri, for longer periods.

The law's intent, as stated in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, was "to target drug kingpins and serious career drug traffickers."

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. In fact, prison populations across the country have become filled to excess capacity in the years following the law by low-level offenders. Many of them are first-time nonviolent inmates who were sentenced to lengthy terms for what many people --- including a number of judges -- think are relatively trivial offenses.

One judge refers to the often-imprisoned group bearing the brunt of the mandatory minimum policy as “low-hanging fruit.”

A number of commentators on criminal law have noted the tremendous power and discretion that federal prosecutors wield in sentencing outcomes. Articles on mandatory minimums, including the Los Angeles Times piece, also note with regularity that those outcomes can be highly disparate, with defendants similarly charged receiving materially differentiated sentences.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett, a prominent critic of mandatory sentencing, says that prosecutors exercise their power with “jaw-dropping, shocking disparity.”

Increasingly more Americans seem inclined to agree. United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently instructed federal prosecutors to pull back on mandatory minimum recommendations in cases involving lower-level offenders.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Use of tough federal sentencing laws varies widely," Joseph Tanfani, Nov. 3, 2013

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