Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Sentenced 1,000+ People to Mandatory Minimums

That's the confession in this stunning article by federal judge Mark W. Bennett in the latest edition of The Nation

Judge Bennett describes how he dreamed of being a civil rights lawyer and ended up a federal judge in the Northern District of Iowa, sending over a thousand "small-time addicts" and "low-hanging fruit of the drug war" to federal prison for 5, 10, or 20-year terms -- without parole.

Are long mandatory sentences right for these small fry?  Judge Bennett says no -- and so do his jurors:
Several years ago, I started visiting inmates I had sentenced in prison. It is deeply inspiring to see the positive changes most have made. Some definitely needed the wake-up call of a prison cell, but very few need more than two or three years behind bars. These men and women need intensive drug treatment, and most of the inmates I visit are working hard to turn their lives around. They are shocked—and glad—to see me, and it’s important to them that people outside prison care about their progress. For far too many, I am their only visitor. ...
For years I have debriefed jurors after their verdicts. Northwest Iowa is one of the most conservative regions in the country, and these are people who, for the most part, think judges are too soft on crime. Yet, for all the times I’ve asked jurors after a drug conviction what they think a fair sentence would be, never has one given a figure even close to the mandatory minimum. It is always far lower. Like people who dislike Congress but like their Congress member, these jurors think the criminal justice system coddles criminals in the abstract—but when confronted by a real live defendant, even a “drug trafficker,” they never find a mandatory minimum sentence to be a just sentence.
(For the record, jurors can't be told what the mandatory minimum sentence is until after they vote to convict an offender.)

Judge Bennett appears in the new drug war documentary "The House I Live In," playing in theaters now.

What do you think:  is Judge Bennett right that mandatory minimums are far too long for many drug offenders?  Should jurors be told what the mandatory sentence will be before they decide to convict?