Drug Law

Federal Judges Call Drug Sentences Too Long and Utterly Inconsistent

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht

Federal Judge Mark Bennett and a federal appeals panel issued separate opinions this week that drug sentencing in the United States is not only too long, but completely inconsistent.

Federal drug laws allow prosecutors to determine a sentence instead of the judge. Bennett called the federal system allowing prosecutors to lengthen the sentence of a drug offender “whimsical and arbitrary,” according to ThinkProgress. Offenders are given longer sentences for arbitrary factors like the jurisdiction where the prosecution took place or the type of drug involved.

Bennett said in his Iowa district a drug defendant is 2,532 percent more likely to receive a sentence enhancement if they have a previous drug felony conviction than in the neighboring Nebraska district.

“These enhancements, at a minimum, double a drug defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence and may also raise the maximum possible sentence, for example, from 40 years to life,” Bennett said. “They are possible any time a drug defendant, facing a mandatory minimum sentence in federal court, has a prior qualifying drug conviction in state or federal court [even some state court misdemeanor convictions count], no matter how old that conviction is.”

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An editorial for the Sacramento Bee on Thursday discussed the disorganized sentencing laws for felony drug possession in California. There are more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements in 21 sections of the California penal code.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that too many drug offenders are being sentenced to jail for too long.

“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget,” Holder said.

On Aug. 12, Holder's office announced a new drug law policy instructing prosecutors to avert mandatory minimum sentencing and set up a specific, factor-based standards for seeking a sentence higher than the minimum.

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One quarter of the prisoners in the world are held in the United States, despite the fact that the country makes up only one-twentieth of planet’s population.

Sources: ThinkProgress, Sacramento Bee