Mandatory Sentencing

I support radical reform of our nation’s drug laws not despite my conservative political views, but because of them. Decriminalization efforts support at least three values that mean much to me as a conservative. Decriminalization falls in line with the conservative (or at least libertarian-leaning conservative) emphasis on personal liberty and the rights of individuals to make choices about how they govern themselves, so long as their actions don’t directly harm others. Decriminalization makes good moral sense too, by not vilifying addicts and by not needlessly breaking up families through incarcerating non-violent offenders. Perhaps most significantly, radically reforming current drug laws avoids the economic irresponsibility of America’s failed war on drugs.

This week, of course, Attorney General Eric Holder announced new Justice Department policies for drug prosecutions, while addressing the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. In his speech, Holder proposed tinkering with the application of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes; modifying the Justice Department’s charging policies “so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences”; and “taking steps to identify and share best practices for enhancing the use of diversion programs – such as drug treatment and community service initiatives – that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.”

I commend Holder’s effort. But as a conservative considering the economics of the drug war, I’m concerned that this new policy neglects one of the most significant reasons why we need much more radical reform than this . . . .

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I didn’t go to Eric Holder’s big speech at the ABA annual meeting on Monday. I kind of halfheartedly tried to go, but there were a lot of people who wanted to see Holder say something they could’ve read about online hours earlier.

If the ABA had invited Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over to speak about the horrendous abuse of federal funds by purveyors of higher education, I’d have smashed my way in. But in the crush of people trying to get a look at the Attorney General trying to dismantle a big part of the United States “War On Drugs,” I was reminded that regulating legal education is a small part of what the ABA does — and a part that isn’t of great institutional importance to the organization. The ABA wants a seat at the policy table when it comes to big sexy issues of justice and legal services. Preventing member institutions from price-gouging young people doesn’t get its logo splashed across all the major news networks.

So, Eric Holder delivered a big policy address. And later, by which point I was on a plane, Hillary Clinton spoke about how she’ll be speaking about other things as she doesn’t run for president just yet. Holder! Hillary! Marvel at the ABA’s relevance in national policy debates!

Except, they’re not relevant. Holder did make an important speech on Monday, and he couldn’t have found a more supportive group for his take-down of mandatory minimums had he been speaking to potheads in Golden Gate Park. But really, the ABA isn’t going to be any more helpful when it comes to actually convincing Congress than a meeting of the 4:20 club…

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I took Crim Law my first semester in law school. My professor, now the school’s dean, was an imposing fellow to 1L eyes. He looked approximately seven feet tall, with a deep, booming voice, a propensity for cold-calling, and a demanding, often impenetrable teaching style. I loved the class, even though I went into fight-or-flight mode in the minutes before he would stroll down the aisle of the auditorium.

We read the Apprendi line of cases, where the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial prevented judges from enhancing criminal sentences beyond statutory maximums based on facts other than those decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. I thought I grasped the gist, with my nervous 1L brain. Then we got to Harris v. United States. In Harris, the majority held that Apprendi did not apply to facts that would increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence. Judges could apply mandatory minimums on the basis of facts not proved to a jury, without violating the Sixth Amendment. These fact were sentencing factors, the majority held, not offense elements.

Terrified that I had misunderstood something crucial, I visited my crim prof’s office before the class when we would discuss Harris. I recited the cases up to that point, if for no other reason than to show that I had, in fact, been reading and that my ultimate confusion was not because I was totally mentally challenged. (Even if just a little.) I summarized my understanding of the Court’s holding in Harris, why it just didn’t square, how I knew that I must be missing something, because I just didn’t see how Harris properly followed. After way too long, I finally sputtered, “Sir, I’m . . . I’m just . . . confused.”

My prof leaned back in his chair, paused dramatically, sighed, then replied, “Ms. Tabo, of course you are confused. The Supreme Court is confused.”

As of this week, the Court is no longer so confused….

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