A California Democrat has introduced a bill in Congress that would end the practice of judges being forced to impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.
The Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2009 (bill text) aims to repeal federal guidelines that force judges' hands in drug cases, and give power back to judges to determine sentences based on other elements of the case, not simply the weight of the drugs involved.
"This legislation will refocus federal prosecutorial resources on major drug traffickers and eliminate racial disparities created by the mandatory minimum sentences for power and crack cocaine," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who authored the bill (her floor statement is available here).
African Americans make up 12 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users, but account for 30 percent of the federal prison population for drug users, according to a statistic presented in the bill.
"In the 1980s, Congress passed two Anti-Drug Abuse Acts with the goal that federal prosecutors would go after major drug traffickers at the top of the food chain, instead of low-level drug offenders at the bottom," Waters continued. "Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences were passed for most drug crimes. These mandatory terms are based solely on the weight and the drug involved, and, with very few exceptions, the courts cannot sentence below them."
"Twenty years later," she added, "mandatory drug sentences have utterly failed to achieve Congress' goals."
TalkLeft, a progressive legal blog, praised the measure, and noted that it would also send small drug cases from federal to state courts.
The blog highlighted a number of findings presented in the legislation.
* Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget increased from $220 million in 1986 to $5.4 billion in 2008.
* Low-level and mid-level drug offenders can be adequately prosecuted by the States and punished or supervised in treatment as appropriate.
* One consequence of the improper focus of Federal cocaine prosecutions has been that the overwhelming majority of low-level offenders subject to the heightened crack cocaine penalties are black and according to the Report to Congress only 8.8 percent of Federal crack cocaine convictions were imposed on whites, while 81.8 percent and 8.4 percent were imposed on blacks and Hispanics, respectively
* African Americans comprise 12 percent of the US population and 14 percent of drug users, but 30 percent of all Federal drug convictions.
* According to the Justice Department, the time spent in prison does not affect recidivism rates.
Waters' bill has 15 cosponsors, all of them Democrats. Few high-profile Democrats have signed on -- the sponsors do not include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) or House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI).
There is no companion bill presently active in the Senate. The bill would first have to go to the Judiciary Committee before being reviewed by the full House.
Published: Thursday March 19, 2009