Imagine that you have prior drug convictions but have led a law-abiding life since that time. Then, either because you were wrongfully accused or because you did slip up again, prosecutors come down on your latest alleged infraction harshly. They offer you an incarceration term of 10 years if you plead guilty. If you choose to go to trial, either to fight a wrongful accusation or for some other purpose, prosecutors will use your earlier convictions against you and you will face a mandatory life sentence without the possibility for parole.
This decision is hopefully one you will never face. But for a man recently profiled by the New York Times and for countless others, this is the kind of decision prosecutors force. Mandatory sentencing for federal drug crimes and other offenses are being sought by prosecutors less often under the Obama administration. However, individuals accused of criminal wrongdoing continue to face extraordinarily severe and harsh punishments under current law.
Mandatory sentencing laws for low-level drug offenders are not the only policies plaguing the integrity of America’s criminal justice system. Enhancements stemming from past convictions also are resulting in over-punishment of accused and convicted persons.
One of the main purposes of the criminal justice system is to hold criminal offenders accountable for their actions in ways that are proportional to their crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike laws and enhancements often directly subvert this purpose and undermine the integrity of the system as a whole. These approaches are therefore in urgent need of reform.
Source: New York Times, “Prosecutors Draw Fire for Sentences Called Harsh,” Erik Eckholm, Dec. 5, 2013