One of the most well-attended sessions at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Convention, was the Criminal Justice Issues Forum hosted by Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Ca.), with the keynote speaker, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The session, “Mandatory Minimums: Rethinking Failed Sentencing Policies and Targeting Money Laundering and Major Drug Traffickers,” tackled the controversial practice of mandatory minimum sentencing, which has plagued the African-American community for decades, primarily because they limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison terms.
Holder said he now has broadened the new policy to cover defendants who have not yet been convicted in drug cases that could involve lengthy mandatory prison sentences. The policy also may be applied, at the discretion of prosecutors, to a defendant who has entered a guilty plea, but has not yet been sentenced.
“This is simply the right thing to do,” said Holder. “It is also the smart thing to do.”
Holder’s appearance at the CBCF convention comes a little more than a month after a story that the Houston Forward Times reported on entitled, “Legalized Slavery - The “Bad” Business of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing and How it Has Impacted Blacks,” where Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who had no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels.
“Some federal drug statutes that mandate inflexible sentences, regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case, do not serve public safety when they’re applied indiscriminately,” said Holder.
Holder says the government should reserve the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers.
Congresswoman Waters, who has long been an advocate for changes concerning mandatory minimum sentencing laws in this country, took the opportunity to applaud Attorney General Holder’s decision to address the draconian mandatory minimum prison sentences in cases involving low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale gangs and cartels, prior to introducing Attorney General Holder.
“Although the Justice Department’s policy shift is a welcoming step towards more “smart on crime” initiatives, the fights is far from over as long as mandatory minimums still remain in law,” said Congresswoman Waters. “Mandatory minimum sentences have not reduced drug use and have contributed to exploding prison populations throughout the United States.”
According to the Bureau of Prisons, when the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986 containing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, the prison population was 36,000. Today, the federal prison population is over 215,000 prisoners, an increase of nearly 800 percent in 28 years, costing taxpayers approximately $26,000 to keep one prisoner in federal prison for one year.
Holder told the audience that almost half of those prisoners that are incarcerated are serving time for drug-related crimes and that many of them have substance abuse disorders.
“America’s criminal justice system is in need of reform,” Holder said. “The so-called war on drugs has had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and largely of color. We must have a smarter more efficient approach to battling crime.”
According to the mandatory minimum guidelines that had long been in place, anyone who was caught with possession of crack cocaine faced the same mandatory minimum as someone convicted of possessing 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. The majority of powder cocaine arrests involved White people, while 80 percent of crack cocaine convictions involved Black men. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changed that 100-to-1 ratio to 18-to-1, officials said.
Rep. Waters informed the audience that she had reintroduced the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act (H.R. 3088), which is a bill that would re-focus scarce federal resources to prosecute major drug kingpins and give courts and judges the authority to use greater discretion to make individualized determinations rather than being held to a stringent sentencing requirement prescribed by Congress.
After hearing from Attorney General Holder, the audience heard from a panel of experts who talked about the issues surrounding mandatory minimum sentencing. Participating on the panel were Heather Lowe, Director of Government Affairs, Global Financial Integrity; John Cassara, Anti-Money Laundering Consultant; Nkechi Taifa, Sr. Policy Analyst, Open Society Institute; Molly Gill, Government Affairs Counsel, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM); Jasmine Tyler, Deputy Director of National Affairs; Dr. Charles Ogletree, Professor, Harvard University School of Law; and Kemba Smith, Founder, Kemba Smith Foundation.
Smith, who many consider to be the poster child for what’s wrong with mandatory minimum sentencing laws spoke about her experience. In 1995, Smith, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 24 ½ years behind bars for her non-violent role in a crack cocaine ring that was led by her boyfriend, who was a major drug dealer. She served six and a half years in the federal prison system before President Bill Clinton pardoned her before leaving office.
“I’m here speaking for the women, like me, who are still locked up in prison,” said Smith. “There are plenty of women, like me, who have been abused by a drug dealing boyfriend like the one I was in a relationship with.”
Panelists stated that there are more serious issues at the state level that must also be addressed and most agreed that there may be a serious conflict of interest between mandatory minimum sentencing laws in select states and privately owned prisons.
Panelists also discussed the role that major banks are playing in contributing to the drug problems and money laundering issues that contribute to the drug problem.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said that in one case, a first-time offender arrested with less than 2 ounces of cocaine was sentenced to 10 years in prison because of mandatory sentencing guidelines. Sen. Paul has drafted legislation along with committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give judges wider sentencing discretion as one way to relieve prison overcrowding and bring down the exploding costs of operating prisons.