Tightening the Cuffs on Judges in the Drug War

Americans spend $49 billion a year imprisoning two million people, one-fourth of them for nonviolent drug offenses. Any politician who'd state the obvious--that prison sentences in this country are too long, too expensive, and often don't fit the crime--would be committing political suicide. But given the costs, you'd think Congress might be anxious to find ways to pare back and get out of the prison business. And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision casting doubt on the future of the mandatory sentences, which are largely responsible for the prison boom, might have been the perfect opportunity.

Instead, Wisconsin Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. has introduced a bill that would further tie judges' hands in drug cases. The bill, "Defending America's Most Vulnerable," would establish harsh new minimum sentences for drug dealers who sell to minors or who sell drugs in urban areas. The sale of virtually any quantity of any illegal drug by someone 21 or older to someone under 18 would automatically earn a 10-year sentence for a first conviction, and a life sentence for any subsequent offense. Meanwhile, the sale of any quantity of any drug in a metro area or within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, college, public library, or drug treatment facility would be met with a minimum sentence of five years.

The bill would also bar judges from "departing," the practice of imposing shorter sentences than the minimum required, regardless of their reasoning. A final provision would punish drug offenders involved in drug rings for sales conducted by others even before these offenders became involved.

A year ago, U.S. Senate Republicans ordered an investigation of the sentencing practices of U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum, chief judge for the District of Minnesota. A conservative appointee, Rosenbaum incurred lawmakers' wrath by testifying during debate over last year's get-tough-on-drugs reform that sentencing guidelines fail to distinguish between drug dealers and first-time offenders and casual users. (See "Stupid Sentencing Tricks," 5/7/03.) At that time, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist opined that further curtailing judges' ability to depart "would seriously impair the ability of the courts to impose just and reasonable sentences."

Will Sensenbrenner's bill gain traction? That just might depend on who Congress members are more beholden to--or frightened of: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft or the Supreme Court.

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