by David P. Lesch, Esq.

I am a huge fan of good intentions.  Unfortunately good intentions do not always produce good results.  Case in point, during the 1970’s and 80’s an increase in violent crime coupled with a war on drugs led our politicians to call for mandatory sentencing for people convicted of certain crimes.  For those of us who are not familiar with a mandatory sentence, let me enlighten you.  When there is a mandatory sentence, the individual must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in a penitentiary.  During this earlier time perio many had argued that “indeterminate sentencing” – giving judges great latitude in how they punish people – led to racism as a result of discriminatory sentencing disparities.  Both Democrats and Republicans united in their call for mandatory sentencing.  By 1986 it was all but a done deal.  If you did the crime you will be doing a minimum amount of time.

But over the last four decades it has become clear that mandatory minimum sentences have not eliminated sentencing disparities.  They have merely shifted the power from judges to prosecutors.  And although a judge may have to impose whatever punishment the law requires, a prosecutor is under no obligation to charge a defendant with violating a law that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.  Therefore, the prosecutor has unreviewable discretion whether to charge a defendant and can force a defendant into cooperation when cooperation would normally not be an option.  A defendant, with his/her back against the precinct wall, has no option but to cooperate with a prosecutor and tell he or she what they want to know.  Was this really what the mandatory minimum sentencing had in mind?  

The United States Congress has finally taken notice.  With approval from President Obama, and even more significantly, cooperation from a majority of the Republicans in Congress, the United States seems ready to revise forty years of federal policy that has increased our prison population to roughly 750 per 100,000, the highest rate of any western nation.  

On October 1, 2015, national prison reform took center stage when a bipartisan coalition of Senators unveiled a new bill to lower the number of mandatory minimum sentences.  And more importantly, the bill will also add programs that will help inmates get ready for their return to society.  Far too many African Americans are being unjustly pulled into the criminal justice system.  Their families are destroyed while they languish in prisons for a mandatory minimum sentence.  Most are never given any skills that would help them return to their communities and avoid the circle back into prison.

This new bill will significantly lower the number of nonviolent drug offenders serving time in prison, giving judges more discretion in sentencing.  By reducing penalties aimed at repeat drug offenders, the bill will also eliminate the three-strikes mandatory life imprison provision and bring in some low level drug offenders below the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence that currently exists.  But it is that part of the bill that expands the in-prison programs to help inmates get the necessary training and skills that I believe is the most important part of the new proposed legislation.

Of course, let’s not give Republicans too much credit.  Their main concern seems to be how much it costs to house an inmate as a result of a mandatory sentence.  But regardless, their cooperation is needed so no matter the motivation, both sides working together as a bipartisan coalition is long overdue.  

As Senator Chuck Schumer recently stated “Today is really one of the finer days for this Congress…we have solved the puzzle and we are here together.”  Schumer continued, “Nonviolent drug offenders aren’t going to stay in jail forever and everyone in prison is going to be given the kind of tools they need to come out and become productive citizens so that we don’t waste lives.”

I couldn’t agree more.


Todays Verdict_David LeschDavid Lesch is an attorney and host of ‘Today’s Verdict with David Lesch‘ on Bronxnet. Today”s Verdict airs Tuesday nights at 6:30pm, Cablevision channel 67, Fios channel 33. 

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