Pubdate: Wed, 21 Jul 2004
Source: Ocean County Observer (NJ)
Copyright: 2004 Ocean County Observer
Author: DeWayne Wickham
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


A recent column I wrote about a call from an American Bar Association
panel for an overhaul of mandatory minimum-sentencing laws got the
attention of a reader who has had his own run-in with the criminal
justice system.

In that piece, I said "the ABA report offers recommendations that
could fix a problem that threatens to turn our democracy into a penal

But what I saw as a chilling possibility, Ross Alan Milburn thinks has
already come to be. An inmate at the federal prison in Florence,
Colo., Milburn complained that he's seen too many young men enter the
prison with mandatory-minimum sentences, some of them drawing life
without parole for nonviolent drug crimes.

"Our democracy has already become a penal colony," he wrote

Before you dismiss Milburn as just the jailhouse scribe, listen to
what else he has to say: "I just wanted to remind you that there are
some drug dealers who admit their guilt and deserve harsh punishment,"
but Milburn says sentencing them to the same time as people like
Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, serial killer Gary Ridgeway and mass murderer
Charles Manson is unfair.

He's got a point. For all of the harm that nonviolent drug dealers do,
their crimes are hardly comparable to those of Kaczynski, Ridgeway and

Last year in a speech to the ABA, Supreme Court Justice Anthony
Kennedy said "mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust." He
urged the legal group to study the matter -- and to press lawmakers to
"repeal federal mandatory minimums."

"The legislative branch has the obligation to determine whether a
policy is wise," Kennedy said. "It is a grave mistake to retain a
policy just because a court finds it constitutional. Courts may
conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, but
that does not mean long sentences are wise and just. Few
misconceptions about government are more mischievous than the idea
that a policy is sound simply because a court finds it

In releasing the findings of his group's study last month, ABA
President Dennis Archer said: "For more than 20 years, we have gotten
tougher on crime. Now we need to get smarter ... The system is broken.
We need to fix it."

When lawyers from around the country gather next month for the ABA's
annual meeting in Atlanta, the body's House of Delegates will be asked
to adopt recommendations that call for the repeal of federal and state
mandatory minimum-sentencing statutes.

That makes sense, given the way the nation's penal institutions have
swelled with offenders who got "one-size-fits-all" sentences mandated
by legislators, not the judges and juries that heard their cases.

"There is a big difference in the criminal mind of a mass murderer and
the mind of a man who engages in and conducts an illegal business,"
Milburn said about nonviolent drug dealers who get mandatory
sentences. "The criminal mind of a drug dealer is not much different
from that of a Wall Street stockbroker ripping off his clients or a
CEO ripping off his company. But they never get sentenced to life with
no parole," he wrote.

I think he makes a good point. It's time to rethink a policy that
metes out long, mandatory prison sentences to nonviolent criminals.

As the nation's prison population has grown, so too has the cost of
keeping millions of Americans behind bars. In 1982, it cost $9 billion
to house inmates in local, state and federal lockups. By 1999 the cost
had risen to $49 billion, the ABA said in its report.

I'm all for government doing what's needed to punish criminals -- and
to keep those who commit violent crimes locked up for a long time. But
like Milburn, Archer and Kennedy, I think mandatory minimum sentences
do more harm than good.
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