Pubdate: Fri, 26 May 2017
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Heather MacDonald


Mandatory Minimums Don't Deserve Your Ire Jeff Sessions's policy won't
lock up harmless stoners, but it will help dismantle drug-trafficking

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is being tarred as a racist-again-for
bringing the law fully to bear on illegal drug traffickers. Mr.
Sessions has instructed federal prosecutors to disclose in court the
actual amount of drugs that trafficking defendants possessed at the
time of arrest. That disclosure will trigger the mandatory penalties
set by Congress for large-scale dealers.

Mr. Sessions's order revokes a 2013 directive by former Attorney
General Eric Holder telling prosecutors to conceal the size of
traffickers' drug stashes so as to avoid imposing the statutory
penalties. Contrary to the claims of Mr. Sessions's critics, this
return to pre-2013 charging rules is neither racist nor an attack on

The impetus to eliminate open-air drug markets has historically come
from law-abiding residents of minority neighborhoods, as books by both
Michael Fortner and James Forman have documented. In 1973 a Harlem
pastor named Oberia D. Dempsey called for mandatory life sentences for
heroin and cocaine dealers, because the "pusher is cruel, inhuman and
ungodly. . . . He knows that he's committing genocide but he doesn't
care." In 1986 Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens introduced a bill to
increase federal crack penalties. "None of the press accounts really
have exaggerated what is actually going on," he said. In 1989 Atlanta
Mayor Maynard Jackson pledged to make "the drug dealer's teeth rattle"
and proposed seizing dealers' assets.

Today people living under the scourge of open-air drug dealing still
face the constant threat of violence. Only months ago Chicago mourned
11-year-old Takiya Holmes, struck by a stray bullet fired by a
19-year-old marijuana dealer. Former FBI Director James Comey once
described the aftermath of a raid in northwest Arkansas that busted 70
drug traffickers. "As our SWAT teams stood in the street following the
arrests of the defendants," he said in a 2015 speech, "they were met
by applause, hugs and offers of food from the good people of that
besieged community." The town was predominantly black, and so were
nearly all the drug dealers.

The argument that Mr. Sessions's order penalizes addiction also falls
flat. For a mandatory federal sentence to come into play, a dealer has
to be caught with an amount of drugs that clearly reveals large-scale
trafficking. To trigger a mandatory 10-year sentence, a heroin
trafficker, for example, must be caught with a kilogram of the drug, a
quantity that represents 10,000 doses and currently has a street value
of at least $100,000.

No one who gets caught smoking a joint is going to be implicated by
Mr. Sessions's order. The number of federal convictions for simple
possession is negligible: only 198 in 2015. Most of those were
plea-bargained down from trafficking charges, usually of marijuana.
Last year the median weight of marijuana possessed by those convicted
of simple possession was 48.5 pounds. To trigger a mandatory penalty
for marijuana trafficking, a dealer would need to be caught with more
than 2,200 pounds of cannabis.

Finally, the idea that Mr. Sessions's memo will exacerbate racial
disparities in prison does not stand up to the facts. Drug enforcement
is not the cause of those disparities. In 2014, 37.4% of state and
federal prisoners were black. If all drug prisoners-who are virtually
all dealers-had been released, the share of black prisoners would have
dropped to 37.2%. What truly causes racial disparities in
incarceration is racial disparities in violent crime.

Likewise, it is America's higher violent-crime rates overall, not drug
enforcement, that cause the country's higher incarceration rates
compared with other Western industrialized countries. The U.S.
homicide rate is seven times the average of 21 Western developed
nations plus Japan; the U.S. gun homicide rate is 19.5 times that
average. Americans ages 15 to 24 kill with guns at nearly 43 times the
rate of their counterparts in those same industrialized nations.

Prison is a bargain compared with the costs of crime. In 2010, the
last year for which a full breakdown of corrections spending is
available, the states and the federal government spent $43 billion on
confining prisoners. By comparison, Americans spend $7.4 billion on

The damage done by uncontrolled crime, including open-air drug
markets, dwarfs the costs of incarceration. The federal Department of
Housing and Urban Development alone spent $88 billion in 2014 on
grants to troubled neighborhoods. That's a minute fraction of what
federal, state and local authorities spend responding to crime and its
cascading effects through communities and their economies.

Mandatory minimum sentences are a valuable tool for inducing drug
dealers to cooperate with prosecutors in identifying fellow members of
large drug-trafficking networks. Under Mr. Sessions's directive,
prosecutors will retain the discretion to avoid the mandatory minimum
if the facts of a case warrant. The Sessions order restores
transparency to prosecution and recognizes the toll that street drug
markets take on poor Americans.

Ms. Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author
of The War on Cops.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt