I’ll never forget the case. A mother of a sick child needed approximately $4000 for an operation for her son. With no insurance for the procedure, she agreed to transport a suitcase that she knew contained illegal drugs. In exchange, the drug trafficker agreed to give her the exact amount of money she required to pay for the needed operation. Unfortunately, she was caught at the airport and charged with drug trafficking. Because of the Draconian drug laws that have been on the books for way too long, she faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in prison. A minimum mandatory sentence means they serve every single day of their sentence, getting no time off for even exemplary prison behavior. In spite of the judge wanting to offer her a much reduced sentence, his hands were tied. The law doesn’t permit judges to waive minimum mandatory sentences. Only prosecutors have that extraordinary power. Fortunately, a change may be a coming soon.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke before the U.S. Sentencing Commission and supported a change to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that would dole out only the most severe sentences for only the most serious drug traffickers. The proposal would impact approximately 70% of all drug trafficking defendants and reduce the average sentence by 11 months. That represents a potential 18% reduction to sentences. An extra bonus of the proposal is that the population of the Bureau of Prisons would drop by approximately 6,500 inmates at the end of five years.
The decision is expected in April. Until the decision is made, the Department of Justice is requesting that prosecutors not object if defendants seek to have the newly proposed guidelines applied to them during sentencing.
My initial reaction is, “Hallelujah!” My next reaction is, “What took so long?” Many state and federal judges, most defense attorneys, and even a number of prosecutors have expressed frustration with the minimum mandatory drug trafficking sentences. Justice should never be a, “One sentence fits all.” Additionally, the disparity between the enormous sentences that non violent drug traffickers are receiving compared to the much lower sentences given on many violent offenses leaves many of us scratching our heads, demanding change. I applaud Holder for finally recommending this change to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Criminal Justice System will greatly benefit as a result.
Unfortunately, I don’t recall the exact sentence given to the mother who trafficked drugs to help finance her son’s operation. I recall that prosecutors did waive the 15 year minimum mandatory sentence. She still served a number of years in prison for her crime.
I’ve never advocated that any drug trafficker should avoid signifiant penalties assuming the evidence is sufficient. I just don’t want to see another defendant receiving a Draconian penalty for their crime when just a really harsh one will suffice.