Such is the lament of federal district court Judge Mark Bennett in this excellent editorial, published over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today (in case you missed it when it first appeared in The Nation). Judge Bennett provides an example of how mandatory minimum sentences can make sentencing miserable -- for himself and others:
I recently sentenced a group of more than 20 defendants on meth trafficking conspiracy charges. All pled guilty. Eighteen were "pill smurfers," as federal prosecutors put it, meaning their role amounted to regularly buying and delivering cold medicine to meth cookers in exchange for very small, low-grade quantities to feed their severe addictions. Most were unemployed or underemployed. Several were single mothers.
These people did not sell or directly distribute meth; there were no hoards of cash, guns or counter-surveillance equipment. Yet all of them faced mandatory minimum sentences of 60 or 120 months. One meth-addicted mother faced a 240-month sentence because a prior meth conviction in county court doubled her mandatory minimum. She will likely serve all 20 years; in the federal system, there is no parole, and one serves an entire sentence minus a maximum of a 15 percent reduction rewarded for "good time."Now that the elections are over, grim reality is sinking back in here in Washington and around the country. We're facing a fiscal cliff, a possible sequestration of funds, and a still-divided Congress. Mandatory minimum reform is one subject that should get the support and attention of both parties. Sending people to prison isn't cheap -- and we're living in an age when every dollar counts.
Every human life counts, too.