Mandatory minimum drug sentence reform still faces challenges

While drug cases have dropped, more substantial federal reform still elusive

In recent years the United State Department of Justice has substantially reduced its reliance on mandatory minimum sentences, especially when prosecuting low-level drug offenders. According to the Washington Post, this change of focus has led to a decrease in both the number of federal drug cases overall and the number of times prosecutors pursue mandatory minimum sentences. However, critics note that such reforms may only be temporary and, so far, more long-lasting reforms have proven elusive.

Drug cases drop

According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, federal drug prosecutions declined by six percent last year and the number of times prosecutors sought mandatory minimum sentences declined from 64 to 51 percent. The decline, which the Justice Department says indicates a smarter approach to crime, was a result of prosecutors being told last year to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving low-level, nonviolent offenders.

The change in attitude was part of a broader effort to reduce the federal prison population and to reverse some of the worst effects of the War on Drugs. Critics have long noted that mandatory minimum drug sentences, a centerpiece of the War on Drugs, have disproportionately affected minority communities and have fueled massive and unsustainable growth in incarceration rates.

Challenges ahead

As the New York Times recently reported, reform of federal minimum sentencing laws has broad bipartisan support in Congress. Yet despite that support, there has been little legislative action to make sentencing reform more permanent. Few bills have been passed, for example, that would reduce or eliminate some of the most unfair minimum sentences currently on the books. Furthermore, the bills that have the best chance of getting passed have been significantly watered down and their long-term impact will likely be insubstantial.

While recent moves by the Justice Department may have reduced the number of times prosecutors rely on minimum sentences, those reforms could easily be reversed depending on who is in charge of the department. A congressional bill, on the other hand, would make the reduction or even elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences much more long lasting.

Defense against drug charges

Because the situation surrounding drug offenses and sentencing is in such flux, it can be difficult for defendants to know what to expect when they have been charged with a drug crime. Because of this increased confusion, a criminal defense attorney should be consulted to help an accused person deal with any drug charges. An experienced attorney can use his legal knowledge and expertise to help uphold the rights of a defendant and mitigate the potentially devastating impact that a drug charge can have on a person's life.