ISSN 2330-717X

HRW Says US Should Repeal Mandatory Federal Drug Sentences


The United States Congress should adopt a blue ribbon task force’s recommendation to repeal most federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday. The Charles Colson Task Force, a congressionally created body with the mandate to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, presented its findings to Congress on February 1, 2016.

In a 132-page report, the task force unanimously urged Congress to reserve federal prisons for the most serious offenders, finding that federal sentences are “often substantially greater than necessary” and that mandatory minimum sentencing laws were a primary driver of that imbalance. To that end, it recommended eliminating a vast majority of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses – making an exception only for drug “kingpins” participating in continuing criminal enterprises.

“Congress asked the experts, and the experts agree that drug mandatory minimums belong on the chopping block,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Federal mandatory minimums result in grossly disproportionate sentences, and there’s no way to address prison overcrowding without tackling them.”

The task force recommended applying the repeal of federal mandatory minimums retroactively, and that if Congress decides to enact future mandatory minimums of any kind, the requirement should automatically expire after five years.

Human Rights Watch recommended the elimination of all drug-related mandatory minimums 16 years ago in its report, “Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.” Judges should be able to exercise their informed judgment in crafting proportionate and effective sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory minimums make this impossible. They force judges to sentence offenders without adequate regard to the particular circumstances of their case, often resulting in disproportionate sentences for relatively minor crimes. Enforcement of US drug laws disproportionately affects racial minorities, and mandatory minimums greatly compound the impact of that broader disparity.

The task force, named for Charles Colson, the founder of the largest prison ministry in the US, also made other significant recommendations. It recommended that any person who has served 15 years in prison should have the ability to apply for resentencing before a judicial authority. It also recommended that the Bureau of Prisons should do more to promote family engagement, by housing inmates close to home and facilitating family visits, to improve reentry into the community and reduce recidivism.

Human Rights Watch, alongside 36 other organizations, supported the creation of the task force in 2013, calling on Congress to review the rapid population growth in the federal prison system. The task force was created early the following year.

Congress is considering legislation that touches on federal drug mandatory minimum sentences, yet the proposals with the most momentum keep almost all drug mandatory minimums in place, Human Rights Watch said. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act under consideration in the Senate broadens judges’ discretion to sentence below certain drug mandatory minimums and reduces some sentence enhancements, yet leaves underlying mandatory minimums untouched.

The more expansive SAFE Justice Act, introduced by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott, narrows the range of offenders who would trigger a mandatory minimum based on their role in the offense. The Smarter Sentencing Act, which is currently stalled in both chambers, would cut many drug mandatory minimums in half.

“The findings of the Colson task force – on mandatory minimums and in other areas – should help refresh Congress’s thinking around criminal justice reform,” Ginatta said. “They chart a bold path for serious reform – Congress should take heed.”

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