For decades, federal prosecutors have been using a statute designed to impose strict mandatory minimum sentences on major drug traffickers to instead trap low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Now federal dockets are full of defendants looking at long, unjust prison sentences. It's a terrific waste of taxpayer money and human potential, but Attorney General Eric Holder hasn't reined in the abuses. A federal judge in Brooklyn recently pleaded with Holder to put limits on the Justice Department's use of mandatory minimums, and the attorney general should fulfill that request.
The case of Jamel Dossie, "a young, small-time, street-level drug dealer's assistant," was the last straw for New York's U.S. District Judge John Gleeson, a former prosecutor. Gleeson had no choice but to give Dossie a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence after the prosecutor made the decision to apply the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The judge called it "not a just sentence." The sentence enhancement statute stripped Gleeson of any discretion to consider that Dossie, a substance abuser himself, had made only $140 for shuttling drugs and money four times between a drug dealer and a buyer, or that Dossie had a supportive family and expressed great remorse.
In doling out the sentence, the judge lamented the unfairly harsh way the law operated. Congress saw fit to use the quantity of drugs found as the basis for labeling a defendant a serious drug trafficker. That was a mistake. Gleeson offered the example of one defendant who organizes dozens of teens to distribute cocaine near a high school with another defendant who is paid $300 to watch for police while a boatload of cocaine is unloaded. The second defendant is the one the law will snag as a drug kingpin and who will face a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Rather than look to drug quantities, Gleeson suggested that Holder limit the application of the law to those situations where the defendant has a leadership or managerial role in the drug business. That's what Congress intended. But federal prosecutors have become too enamored of the power they hold through this unfairly punitive statute that allows them to bludgeon low-level defendants into cooperation. In fiscal year 2011, more than 74 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants faced a mandatory minimum sentence. Yet only 5.4 percent of them directed or managed an aspect of the drug business, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
States, including Florida, have moved toward using drug courts and diversion programs for low-level, nonviolent drug criminals. Evidence demonstrates the programs reduce recidivism and give addicts an opportunity to live productive lives. But the federal system is not advancing apace. The Obama administration can change this, reduce the burden on the courts and the prisons, and save taxpayers money.