Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rural judge forced to sentence over 1000 to federal mandatory sentences

U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett (Northern District of Iowa) laments in The Nation to unjustly sentencing over 1000 low-level drug offenders to long sentences in federal prison because of mandatory sentencing laws. Judges are discouraged from speaking out about policy, but this is a courageous statement by a courageous judge.

He writes about the devastation that this causes to families, and its inherent injustice.

He could also have written about the extraordinarily wasteful expense. In 2010, the operating cost to house the average federal prisoner for a year was $25,500. To house the 1000 prisoners that he sentenced to a mandatory sentence costs $25.5 million per year. (He has sentenced thousands more prisoners to non-mandatory drug sentences). If the average of the sentences for those thousands -- some got the 5 year minimum, some got the 10 year minimum, and many got many years more than the minimum under the sentencing guidelines -- was ten years, then we would be talking about a quarter billions dollars to house just the prisoners that this single judge has sentenced. This cost is many multiples more than the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 1986 that the Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act of 1986 would cost. The CBO estimate, for the fifth year after this law was enacted, would amount to $27.7 million. This terribly mistaken law has now been in force for 26 years, with no prospect that it might be revised soon.

(Long-time readers of this blog know that 26 years ago the House-version of this law, a key feature of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, came out of my word processor when I was assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. I have been working to repeal the law since 1989.)

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