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Old 05-16-2002, 07:47 PM
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Default Mandatory-Sentencing Laws Breed Injustice, Not Change

Daily Journal
May 15, 2002

Forum Column

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

When Congress enacted the first
mandatory-sentencing laws in 1986, the aim was to rid
the streets of violent drug kingpins. The two basic
criteria used to determine who was a criminal menace
were whether a firearm was used and what the quantity
of the drugs was. The law, which stripped judges of
their discretionary legal authority to impose
sentences in some cases, sent the message that
dangerous criminals did not deserve any mercy.
Many states took their cue from the feds.
During the next decade, they quickly passed a wave of
three-strike, two-strike, one-strike and mandatory
drug sentence laws. The mandatory-sentencing laws gave
judges little or no discretion to alter a sentence.
But Congress and the states that passed the
mandatory-sentencing laws made no provision for
leniency for those offenders who were not violent
felons or major drug dealers. In March, the U.S.
Supreme Court agreed to examine a North Carolina drug
case that involves an alleged abuse in the state's
mandatory-sentence law. Harris v. United States,
00-10666. This raises faint hope that the court could
decide that these laws are unjust and modify or scrap
A favorable decision would be welcome news to
petty offenders such as Theresa Wilson and Arthur
Gibson. In 1998, Wilson, with no prior criminal
record, was slapped with a life sentence in Alabama
for the sale of a prescription painkiller for $150 to
an undercover officer, according to the Los Angeles
Times. Wilson literally got the break of a lifetime
when an appeals court in August called the sentence
wildly excessive and tossed it. A few months later,
she was released.
Gibson is not as fortunate. Although he had
committed no violent crimes in nearly four decades, he
was hit with a 25-year-to-life stretch for crack
cocaine possession under California's savage
three-strikes law; no judge has said that his sentence
was wildly excessive.
The lucky Wilson and the luckless Gibson are
poor and ill-educated, were each convicted of a
nonviolent petty drug crime and are African-American.
They fit the standard profile of thousands of
prisoners locked up in state and federal prisons under
the mandatory-sentencing laws.
Although men and women such as Gibson and
Wilson are far less likely to use drugs than whites,
they also are less likely to be offered a chance to
plea bargain and more likely to fall under federal or
state mandatory-sentencing laws. They will serve
sentences nearly double those of whites, according to
the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and
Leadership Conference Education Fund.
These laws have done disastrous damage to many
African-American communities and families. The Wilson
and Gibson cases are near-textbook examples of this.
Wilson is a high-school dropout and single mother of
two children; if her life sentence had stood, her
children would have been dumped in a foster-care
facility or foisted off on a grandparent, likely
ill-equipped to care for two children.
If or when Gibson is released, he will join
the swollen ranks of thousands of African-American men
permanently barred from voting because of Draconian
laws that severely restrict, if not outright bar,
ex-felons from voting. The voting ban diminishes the
political power of African-American communities.
The hard-luck plight of petty drug criminals
who are African-American comes at a time when more
state officials than ever realize that packing
thousands of people into American prisons is no cure
for crime and drug ills. In part because of shrinking
budgets, courts in states such as California and New
York are much more willing to send people to
drug-treatment programs instead of prison. Eight
states have recently rolled back their
mandatory-sentencing laws to avoid more embarrassing
cases such as that of Wilson.
Many judges have spoken out against the
mandatory-sentencing laws. These laws are an affront
to their authority to dispense justice and reduce them
to impotent legal figureheads. Judges also know from
firsthand experience the injustice and human pain that
these mandatory sentences wreak.
The judge in the Wilson case practically
apologized to the defendant for having to slap her
with a life sentence, but his hands were tied. Despite
the nation's near-record low crime rates and
enlightened criminal-justice reform action by some
state officials, Congress and many state officials
stubbornly refuse to amend the mandatory-sentence
laws. Many politicians regard crime as too volatile an
issue, and few are willing to oppose these laws and
risk being tarred by voters as soft on crime.
A favorable Supreme Court decision would send
a strong signal to federal and state officials that
it's OK to drop the tough-guy approach to sentencing;
shift more resources from prisons to programs for drug
education, treatment and prevention; restore
sentencing discretion to judges; and target high-level
dealers for prosecution. This would do much to bring
some sanity back to the nation's sentencing laws.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The
Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).
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