Opinion: Mandatory Minimum Sentences Impede Justice

I have never met Tony Allen Gregg, a drug abuser and occasional dealer, a 10th-grade dropout and petty criminal.

But the details of Mr. Gregg’s life — and the life sentence he is now serving — highlight a major problem in our criminal justice system: mandatory minimum sentencing, an offshoot of our misguided “war on drugs.”

Federal mandatory minimums, created by an overzealous Congress 25 years ago, require harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders. Such laws do a disservice to the people accused of the crimes, to the judges before whom their cases are reviewed, to communities that are largely poor and black or Latino, and to society.

These laws have inappropriately shifted sentencing authority to prosecutors through their charging decisions, impeding judges from considering mitigating factors that would help impose fair and just sentences. They essentially strip away the discretion that judges traditionally employ in sentencing drug offenders, particularly low-level offenders.

As a result, the proportion of drug offenders sentenced to prison has swelled from 79 percent in 1998 to 93 percent in 2004. Many of those are serving extraordinarily long sentences, receiving little or no addiction treatment, and growing older, sicker and more in need of taxpayer-provided medical care.

The United States boasts the largest prison population in the world. And yet even the U.S. drug czar admits that our efforts are failing. After 40 years and $1 trillion spent, Gil Kerlikowske told the Associated Press last May, “it has not been successful … the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

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