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Mandatory sentences come under criticism

About 30 years ago Congress and many state legislatures began getting tough on crime by enacting mandatory sentences for convictions on certain felony charges, including many types of drug cases. Now many researchers are saying the tough sentencing laws have gone too far, and that too many nonviolent offenders are receiving unreasonably long sentences.

One Florida woman provides a frightening example. A crack dealer was the father of one of her children. When he was released from prison, she allowed him into her home from time to time to visit their daughter. Then one day the police showed up with a search warrant. In an attic space they found a lock box containing cocaine. The woman said she had no knowledge of its existence. The boyfriend testified that she had participated in drug transactions and had accepted payment for storing the lock box in her home. She was convicted on felony drug charges.

Under a federal mandatory sentencing law the judge had no choice but to sentence the woman to life in prison without parole. The judge acknowledged at the time that she was a minor participant in the crime and he did not believe the woman deserved a life sentence.

The woman was 27 when she was sentenced. Her children were 5, 6 and 9 at the time. Today she is 42; her youngest child is 20. She is still incarcerated in a federal prison in Tallahassee. Her ex-boyfriend, the alleged leader of the drug ring, received a shorter sentence because he testified against the woman. He was released from prison 5 years ago.

Researchers say that such severe penalties for nonviolent drug offenders have done nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into our communities. They also point out that they have the effect of turning nonviolent criminals into hardened criminals. Support is growing for a return to more reasonable sentences. Whether the woman in this story will get any relief from her sentence is unknown, however.

Source: New York Times, "For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars," John Tierney, Dec. 11, 2012

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