Efforts seek to overhaul mandatory minimum sentences

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

DaRon Jackson was sentenced to 13 years in a federal prison, a mandatory minimum sentence for an offense involving crack cocaine. He was released a year early after a law was changed to prohibit the differences in convictions involving crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.

If his conviction had involved powdered cocaine, he believes he would have had to serve just a few years.

Out of prison for seven years, Jackson has fought addictions by accepting responsibility and welcoming God in his life. He received help from the archdiocesan Criminal Justice Ministry's Release to Rent program, which provides a year of housing for men who have served long terms, work full time, have major challenges and have no one to help them. He still attends meetings to remind himself from where he came and what will happen if he gets back in the wrong frame of mind. He works a manufacturing job and is a self-described "productive citizen."

Jackson has a dim view of mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions, saying they're inappropriate for most people and a judge should decide who does and doesn't deserve a long punishment.

"When the sentence is 15, 20 years, you destroy a life," he said.

A wide variety of groups -- working with inmates and their families to public policy organizations -- support changing laws that call for federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Smarter sentencing

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative group that educates Americans on the "dangers" of liberal policies, studied mandatory minimum sentences and found them to be the product of good intentions.

"But good intentions alone do not make good policy; good results are also necessary," the study concluded. "Congress was right to be concerned about reducing sentencing disparity and ensuring that sentences are neither unduly lenient nor unduly harsh.

"Nonetheless, just as law should be tempered with equity, so should rigid sentencing rules leave room for adjustment in certain cases where a legislatively fixed sentence would be manifestly unjust. No statute can account for every variable in every case, and the attempt to do so with mandatory minimums has given rise to punishments in some small-scale drug possession cases that are completely out of whack with the purpose of the federal sentencing laws."Sentencing examples

The Smarter Sentencing Act has been introduced in Congress as HR 920, by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and SB 502, by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. They reduce federal drug crime mandatory minimum sentences put in place in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal government, was organized in 1985 to develop a national sentencing policy for federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines structure the courts' sentencing discretion to help ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences. The guidelines establish base offense levels for drug trafficking offenders using the quantity and type of drugs involved in the offense.

The Heritage Foundation's study found that the Smarter Sentencing Act mitigates the "cliff effect" in the context of nonviolent drug offenses.

"Doing so could ameliorate some of the extremely harsh sentences that district courts have imposed without taking a bite out of the efforts that the government has made over the past four decades to improve public safety," it stated.

Push toward change

Sister Carleen Reck, SSND, head of the Criminal Justice Ministry in St. Louis, commends Labrador and Lee.

"Finally some legislators are working 'smarter' on crime rather than 'tougher,'" she said. "The Smarter Sentencing Act recognizes that more than half of the federal prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses. The act would apply only to nonviolent offenders who have a limited criminal history."

Among other things, the bills state that penalties for violent, repeat and serious drug traffickers who present public safety risks remain appropriately severe while reducing and preventing racial disparities in federal sentencing.

The cost for incarcerating nonviolent people involves more than the operation of prisons, including crowded conditions and possible new construction

"It affects the human potential of persons who could be functioning well in and contributing to the community," Sister Carleen said.

Sister Carleen's staff and volunteers serve incarcerated people in four prisons and 10 jails and provide basic necessities when they're released and long-term help through two housing programs. She called the proposed legislation "a strong first step toward working 'smarter' on crime."

A first step

The U.S. incarceration rate of 707 adults per 100,000 residents is the highest in the world by a large margin -- 10 times the rate in Norway, according to the World Prison Population List of the International Centre for Prison Studies using statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy agency for the state's bishops, recently cited the statistics in a newsletter.

"The huge numbers of inmates and housing facilities cost our state and nation millions of dollars a year to house, feed and to provide medical care," the agency stated. "Fortunately, criminal justice reforms have begun to be part of the national conversation as policy makers are beginning to realize the harsh sentencing policies of the '80s and '90s cannot be financially maintained."

Writing on behalf of the U.S. bishops' committee on domestic justice and human development, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Father Larry Snyder, former president of Catholic Charities USA, asked for support of the act, calling it "a modest first step in reforming our nation's broken sentencing policies."

"Our Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and reinforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance."

Prolonged incarceration often contributes to family instability and poverty, they wrote.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, saying it'll save billions spent on incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders and will save expensive prison beds for more dangerous offenders.

File Attachment: 
Criminal Justice Ministry
No votes yet