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Mandatory minimums unjust -- and they don't work

This election year, crime and drug issues seem to be off the table. Yet in a campaign season two decades ago, Congress made a hasty mistake that continues to plague our justice system today.

In the weeks before the 1986 election, I was part of the congressional clamor for tough mandatory drug sentences after the cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias.

Amidst the panic around crack cocaine, as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, I helped Congress adopt long, quantity-based sentences to stop drug abuse and trafficking.

In our haste, the bills were enacted without legislative hearings or study. If we had taken the time to review the history of such sentences, we would have known better.

A new report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), "Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums," describes how in 1970, a bipartisan Congress repealed mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses. The vote came three weeks before an election, and supporters had no trouble getting re-elected. Every senator, save one with an ethics problem, and all but a handful of House members who voted for repeal, won re-election.

Eliminating mandatory minimums would "result in better justice and more appropriate sentences," junior House Republican George H.W. Bush told his colleagues. His outspoken support of repeal certainly did not slow his political path to the White House.

Congress first passed mandatory sentences for drug crimes in the 1951 Boggs Act, named for Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La. Five years later, Congress added even tougher sentences. But within a dozen years, drugs were all over America's cities, campuses and suburbs. To more effectively fight drugs and crime, Congress -- with the encouragement of President Richard Nixon -- repealed the Boggs Act in 1970.

The mandatory minimum drug sentences we passed in 1986, as well as New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws, have also failed miserably. Since the late 1980s, cocaine and heroin is cheaper, purer and more available than ever before. Mandatory sentences have sent tens of thousands of low-level drug dealers to federal prison to serve terms that federal judges call "manifestly unjust." All over the country, those low-level dealers are quickly replaced.

The public doesn't want mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. For years, politicians argued that the American public's desire for effective anti-drug policies included support for mandatory minimums.

The FAMM poll suggests otherwise. Almost 60 percent oppose mandatory prison sentences for some nonviolent offenders; 78 percent want courts to handle sentencing, not Congress. The public is ahead of politicians when it comes to sensible crime policy.

Eric E. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. He is also on the board of directors of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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