Pubdate: Fri, 17 Oct 2008
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Contact:  2008 The Buffalo News
Author: Eric E. Sterling
Note: Eric E. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy 
Foundation. He is also on the board of directors of FamiliesAgainst 
Mandatory Minimums.
Referenced: The Families Against Mandatory Minimums report and poll
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Rockefeller Drug Laws)
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


This election year, crime and drug issues seem to be off the table. 
Yet in a campaign season two decades ago, Congress made a hasty 
mistake that continues to plague our justice system today.

In the weeks before the 1986 election, I was part of the 
congressional clamor for tough mandatory drug sentences after the 
cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias.

Amidst the panic around crack cocaine, as counsel to the House 
Judiciary Committee, I helped Congress adopt long, quantity-based 
sentences to stop drug abuse and trafficking.

In our haste, the bills were enacted without legislative hearings or 
study. If we had taken the time to review the history of such 
sentences, we would have known better.

A new report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), 
"Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory 
Minimums," describes how in 1970, a bipartisan Congress repealed 
mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses. The vote came three 
weeks before an election, and supporters had no trouble getting 
re-elected. Every senator, save one with an ethics problem, and all 
but a handful of House members who voted for repeal, won re-election.

Eliminating mandatory minimums would "result in better justice and 
more appropriate sentences," junior House Republican George H. W. 
Bush told his colleagues. His outspoken support of repeal certainly 
did not slow his political path to the White House.

Congress first passed mandatory sentences for drug crimes in the 1951 
Boggs Act, named for Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La. Five years later, 
Congress added even tougher sentences. But within a dozen years, 
drugs were all over America's cities, campuses and suburbs. To more 
effectively fight drugs and crime, Congress -- with the encouragement 
of President Richard Nixon -- repealed the Boggs Act in 1970.

The mandatory minimum drug sentences we passed in 1986, as well as 
New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws, have also failed miserably. 
Since the late 1980s, cocaine and heroin is cheaper, purer and more 
available than ever before. Mandatory sentences have sent tens of 
thousands of low-level drug dealers to federal prison to serve terms 
that federal judges call "manifestly unjust." All over the country, 
those low-level dealers are quickly replaced.

The public doesn't want mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent 
crimes. For years, politicians argued that the American public's 
desire for effective anti-drug policies included support for 
mandatory minimums.

The FAMM poll suggests otherwise. Almost 60 percent oppose mandatory 
prison sentences for some nonviolent offenders; 78 percent want 
courts to handle sentencing, not Congress. The public is ahead of 
politicians when it comes to sensible crime policy.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake