"Consider this case: A young man with no previous serious offense is stopped on the George Washington Memorial Parkway near Washington, D.C., by U.S. Park Police. He is stopped for not wearing a seat belt. A search of the car follows and leads to the discovery of just over 5 grams of crack cocaine in the trunk. The young man is indicted in federal court. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
"If he had taken an exit and left the federal road, his sentence likely would have been measured in terms of months, not years."
Those words are lifted from the text of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's speech to the recent American Bar Association convention in San Francisco. It's news when a Supreme Court justice announces that federal mandatory-minimum sentences "should be revised downward" and calls for greater use of the executive pardon power.
It's big news when the critic is a conservative Reagan appointee.
Mary Price, a lawyer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, hopes this strong salvo from the right will help reform a draconian system. We discussed Clarence Aaron, who at age 23 was sentenced to life without parole for a low-level first-time nonviolent drug offense. Chrissy Taylor, then 19, received a 19-year sentence for buying legal drugs for her boyfriend's illegal drug operation. Kennedy spoke of such cases when he told the ABA, "Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that a 20-year-old does not know how long 10 or 15 years is."
Clarence Aaron, I submit, would welcome a 15-year sentence.
It makes no sense: Please, send away 20-year-olds for long, hard time for violent crimes and repeat offenses -- but not for first-time, gofer-level offenses.
I called the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports California's "three-strikes" law, for a contrary view. I didn't get it: Legal director Kent Scheidegger said Kennedy is "right, there are some things that should be re-examined," such as the disparity that mandates a five-year minimum sentence for 500 grams of cocaine, but also for 5 grams (100 times less) of crack.
In 1998, 85 percent of crack arrests involved African Americans, while 31 percent of powder cocaine arrests involved black defendants.
Scheidegger was open to some sentence reductions, with the savvy caveat: "That doesn't mean we should go back to the mistakes of the '60s when we got real soft on crime and the crime rates went through the roof." Amen.
The answer is not simply shorter sentences, but smarter, saner sentences that fit the crime.
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