Mandatory Sentences Revisited
August 9, 2001
Even anti-crime hawks are beginning to express unease over mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent crimes. They say the sentences are too harsh in some cases. Under such laws, judges are required to impose fixed, substantial terms for certain crimes.
- In 1984, Congress approved the Sentencing Reform Act -- designed to make sentences more certain and uniform by abolishing federal parole and creating the Sentencing Commission to set guidelines for federal crimes.
- So far, 400,000 defendants have been sentenced under its terms.
- Two years later, Congress also imposed harsh minimum sentences for small amounts of crack cocaine -- which legislators at the time considered more dangerous than powdered cocaine -- and for other crimes.
- Over the years, Congress has drastically raised punishments for repeat offenders -- mirroring state anti-crime efforts.
But in recent months, President Bush as well as other prominent Republicans and influential judges have voiced their doubts about that course.
Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has said that he is "reluctant to expand mandatory minimums." Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) recently proposed rolling back his state's stiff sentences. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is drafting legislation to iron out the disparity between harsh sentences for crack and lighter ones for powder.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission has announced plans to revisit its most controversial guidelines -- those for sentencing drug crimes and for weighing prior offenses.
Source: Gary Fields, "Mandatory Prison Time Is Losing Its Appeal," Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2001.
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