Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Mandatory minimum sentencing under attack

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
November 4, 2011

This week, the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress its 645-page report assessing the impact of statutory mandatory minimum penalties (MMS) on federal sentencing.
Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission stated, “While there is a spectrum of views on the Commission regarding mandatory minimum penalties, the Commission unanimously believes that certain mandatory minimum penalties apply too broadly, are excessively severe, and are applied inconsistently across the country.”
The use of prisons to control crime increased during the high-crime-rate-decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The political mantra ‘Tough on Crime’ brought into vogue MMS. The principle rationale for MMS is the belief that the length of time a person spends in prison acts as a deterrent to future recidivism. According to author and economist Steven Levitt, “The evidence linking increased punishment to lower crime rates is very strong.”
Yet, MMS has fallen out of vogue. As crime rates have fallen to record lows and prisons have filled to record highs -- prisons as crime control tools and MMS as an instrument of that control are expendable. Ever shrinking budgets have made the decision to walk away from MMS an easy one.
In Pennsylvania, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has vowed to stop the expansion of MMS legislation. Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), who has become a fierce critic of MMS, suggested that they have caused prison overcrowding, led to injustices, and failed to deter crime.
Though he conceded that opposing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses such as drug use is more popular than opposing them for violent crimes, Greenleaf has already committed to preventing some MMS bills from coming up for a committee vote.
This fall the New York Times wrote, “The rise in mandatory minimum sentences has damaged the integrity of the justice system, reduced the role of judges in meting out punishment and increased the power of prosecutors beyond their proper roles.”
In 2009, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing issued a report on MMS. The Commission made numerous findings including that fewer than half of all convictions for mandatory-eligible offenses resulted in the mandatory sentence; only 34% of Pennsylvanians surveyed could correctly name a mandatory eligible offense; and neither the length of sentence nor the imposition of the mandatory sentence was a predictor of recidivism.
"What I think most people do not know is that in the vast majority of cases where mandatory minimums are available in the commonwealth, they are not utilized for that purpose," Delaware County Judge Frank T. Hazel told the Delaware Daily Times. "They are utilized for plea bargaining purposes … You really haven't seen the impact of mandatory-minimum sentences in Pennsylvania because of the manner in which it is not used."

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