Mandatory Minimums Are a 'Waste of Human Lives' -- Why Eric Holder's Overhaul of Mandatory Minimums Is So Important

Human Rights

Anthony Papa was in debt and desperate for cash when he accepted an offer, from a bowling buddy, to get involved in a drug deal. In exchange for $500, the father-of-one was to deliver an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, New York.

Papa delivered it into the hands of undercover police. Despite being a first-time, non-violent offender with no wider connection to any gangs or cartels, the radio repair man was sentenced to 15 years to life in New York's Sing Sing prison. His buddy, a lynchpin who organised the deal, was given three years to life.

Under Eric Holder's long-awaited overhaul of federal prison policy, unveiled on Monday, offenders like Papa will no longer be subjected to mandatory minimum sentencing, which the attorney general has said is unfair.

It is too late for Papa, who served 12 of his 15 years in state prison before being granted clemency. But as an advocate for state and federal reforms for the Drug Policy Alliance, he welcomed Holder's overhaul. Among the changes Holder announced is new guidance to federal prosecutors to omit listing quantities of drugs in indictments for low-level drug crimes, thus sidestepping the sort of mandatory sentences that led Papa to serve his 12 years.

"Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offences" said Papa. "It's a waste of valuable tax dollars and a waste of human lives."

Drug-related offences drive the vast majority of the US's bloated and expensive prison population, a point made by Holder in his speech in San Francisco. Around half of the 200,000 people in federal prisons are locked up for drug offences, and about 60% are serving time under mandatory sentencing provisions, according to The Sentencing Project, a campaign group for reform. Just under half of the 25,000 people incarcerated every year for drug offences are lower-level offenders, such as street-level dealers and couriers.

Mark Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said "thousands" of offenders fell into the category. Mauer described Holder's proposals as a "significant development" which would not only go towards reducing prison populations but would also have an effect on the treatment of drug offenders.

He said: "Since the 'war on drugs' there have been huge developments in drug courts and drug treatment but mandatory sentencing has acted against those. This represents a one way to open that up a bit and increase the potential scope of other options."

Mauer said that incarceration had little impact on the number or scale of drug crimes in the US. "Even more than other offences, prison has very little impact on drug crime overall. If you take someone from the street corner selling drugs, they are immediately replaced."

Holder's proposals are part of a wider debate on incarceration and the war on drugs that has been gaining support across the political divide. Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been advocating change for years, was disappointed that Obama's administration had not acted sooner.

Nadelmann said: "There's no good reason why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term – and tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay."

But he said Obama and Holder deserved credit for decisive action. Nadelmann added that while prosecutors cannot legally be required to refrain from enforcing the law, the new guidelines would allow them discretion or to have a "shred of humanity", in order to examine the circumstances of criminals such as drug mules and couriers. He said the new guidelines would also curtail cases in which, because of plea bargaining, "significant drug dealers" may be given a lower sentences than a courier, mule or "a girlfriend whose only job was to open the door".

The national politics of the issue have shifted significantly recently, enabling cross party support for Holder's "bold" proposals, Nadelmann said.

Fuelled by a need to save money on prison costs, several conservative states have sought ways to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders who are incarcerated. Texas and Arkansas, for example, have examined a wave of measures including reducing prison terms, diverting people into treatment programmes and releasing inmates on good behaviour early. Republican governors and senators, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, have worked to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing when circumstances merit. Bipartisan bills are being introduced on the issue.

Advocates for reform say that changes that affect sentences for offenders, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 to address racial disparities in the sentencing laws on cocaine, should be applied retroactively.

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