Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Worst Mandatory Minimum on the Books?

There are lots of horrific mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) might just be in the running for one of the worst.  That statute requires a 15-year, no-parole federal prison sentence for anyone who possesses a gun and has three prior convictions for a "violent felony" or "serious drug offense."  At first blush, this might sound good -- lock up scary repeat offenders who shouldn't have guns, right?

Wrong.  This fantastic New York Times editorial explains the problem with this troublesome law, put into words by none other than conservative Supreme Court jurist Antonin Scalia:

Justice Antonin Scalia has called this federal statute unconstitutional because some of its language is so vague that it “permits, indeed invites, arbitrary enforcement.” In dissenting in a case last year, he wrote, “Many years of prison hinge on whether a crime falls within” the act.
You could drive a proverbial Mack truck through the definition of "violent felony" and "serious drug offense" in the federal code.  Prior drug offenses need not be that "serious" to qualify.  Prior "violent" felonies can include a list of crimes in which no one was actually hurt or threatened.  And, like all mandatory minimums, the 15-year sentence is tied to the charge, so prosecutors decide who to apply it to -- and who to give a pass to.  These charging decisions can't be reviewed or appealed -- and once they're made, the judge is stuck with the 15-year prison term.  There is no "safety valve" for ACCA offenders.

FAMM opposes ACCA sentences just as it does all mandatory minimum sentences.  Read a few examples of unjust ACCA sentences here and here.