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New Federal Sentencing Data Shows a Decline in Mandatory Minimums

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 10:17
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Federal judges continued to hand down fewer mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 2016, according to data released today by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The trend, which began with the launch of the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime initiative in 2014, is a result of federal prosecutors bringing less onerous charges.

Of the 19,787 federal drug sentences handed down in 2016, 55 percent were guideline sentences, rather than mandatory minimums. In fiscal year 2010, only 35 percent of more than 24,000 federal drug sentences were not mandatory minimums.

The Smart on Crime initiative clearly had an impact. But it was small and will likely be short-lived. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reportedly preparing a memo to federal prosecutors regarding drug charging. Sessions has blamed the increase in heroin use on the decline in the Bureau of Prisons population, so I’m guessing his forthcoming memo will instruct prosecutors to resume bringing the maximum charge in federal drug cases. In all but a few cases, mandatory minimums are the most draconian tool available. (The exception being de facto life sentences, which require astronomical quantities of drugs.)

The USSC’s data reveals another noteworthy trend: Federal methamphetamine offenders continue to see very little benefit from the last decade’s worth of various criminal justice reforms:

(Charts made using with data pulled from the 2009-2016 USSC sourcebooks)

It’s useful to compare crack and meth here. Both have fancier siblings that tend to get a pass from the media (powder cocaine and prescription amphetamines, respectively), both are used and sold largely by low-income people, and both–up until 2010–required incredibly small quantities to trigger their corresponding mandatory minimums.

Starting in 1986, five grams of crack cocaine triggered the same federal five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence as five grams of pure methamphetamine (or 50 grams of a mixture containing any amount of methamphetamine). With the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the minimum quantity of crack cocaine necessary for a five-year mandatory minimum was raised to 28 grams; the minimum quantity for methamphetamine remains five grams.

Why is that? Well, crack and powder cocaine had–still have, in fact–a rather obvious racial disparity. An offender needed 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is sold by every race of offender, to trigger the same sentence as five grams of crack, which continues to be sold mostly by black offenders. Congress’s decision to reduce that gap was explicitly race-related. And that’s good. I’ll cheer for mercy by practically any means.

But no legislator has entertained the idea of extending the same consideration to meth offenders, even though there is a racial argument for increasing the quantity threshold, as more than 50 percent of meth offenders are hispanic. As with opioids and crack, many of the people who sell meth also use it. That said, more than 30 percent of meth offenders are white, and I suspect many people, when they think of meth, imagine the worst, most dangerous kind of white person. Having grown up with meth users in rural Florida and worked with meth offenders during my time at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, I can attest that the ones I’ve encountered are decent people when sober and more obnoxious-than-dangerous when using.

I’m not sure where the stereotype of the murderous meth head came from. Yes, 20 percent of federal meth cases involve weapons, but so do 27 percent of crack cases. And “involved” is a frighteningly loose term. Simply possessing a weapon while committing a drug offense, as Weldon Angelos’s case illustrates, is enough to get one of the worst penalties in the federal system. Whatever the source of our collective apathy for meth offenders, the consequenses of it are devastating. Just ask Mandy Martinson or Melissa Trigg.


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