At a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) unveiled a bill designed to strip mandatory minimum drug sentences from the federal criminal code. It would also require US Attorneys to get written approval from the Attorney General before prosecuting certain federal drug offenses, and would restore the ability of federal judges to place drug offenders on probation or a suspended sentence.
The proposed legislation is the high point so far of a decade-long campaign to move away from mandatory minimum drug sentencing, a policy that accelerated dramatically with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 in the midst of the crack cocaine media and political frenzy. Among its most notorious legacies is the hundred-to-one disparity between the amounts of powder and crack cocaine triggering five and ten year mandatory sentences. This bill would eliminate that disparity by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for both forms of cocaine.
The Waters bill, titled the "Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act of 2001," is designed to eliminate mandatory minimums because "these laws do nothing to discourage drug-related crimes" and because they "disproportionately increase the number of women and minority first-time nonviolent drug offenders serving lengthy sentences intended for major drug offenders," Waters told the press conference.
"Simply put, mandatory minimum drug sentences, conspiracy laws and other misguided federal drug laws destroy lives and families," said Waters. "It is time for this nation to recommit itself to serving the public by providing services that offer hope and opportunity. We must restore integrity to the criminal justice system and find more constructive approaches to America's drug problem," the South Central Los Angeles lawmaker said.
Among those joining Rep. Waters at the press conference were Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (http://www.famm.org), Jenni Gainsborough of The Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org), former drug war prisoner Derrick Curry, who was serving a 19-year sentence until President Clinton commuted it in January, and Karen Garrison, a Washington, DC resident whose twin sons, both Howard University law students, are serving 15- and 19-year mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine distribution. Both Curry and Garrison are also FAMM members.
Waters aide Candice Tolliver told DRCNet the congresswoman believed the bill had a real chance of success this year. "We already have cosponsors, including Republicans, in the House, and we think we can pass it." And, said Tolliver, with power in the Senate having shifted to the Democrats, things are looking better today than earlier in the week. "We had high hopes yesterday; they are even higher today," Tolliver said.
Monica Pratt of FAMM was a bit more guarded in her predictions of success. "Rep. Waters' bill opens a door that makes it possible to initiate discussions on drug reform, but I'm afraid victory is still pretty far away," she told DRCNet. "It does provide the opportunity to organize and to get the word out to members of Congress who say behind closed doors that mandatory minimums need to be reformed, but who don't do anything about it."
Still, Pratt told DRCNet that change seemed visible on the horizon. "The states are ahead of the feds on this issue. You see sentencing reform beginning to happen all over the country," Pratt said. "We have a situation where the states are beginning to have to grapple with the consequences of mandatory sentencing policies that have filled their prisons with nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. Members of Congress don't feel that economic pressure as much as state legislators do."
Building grassroots pressure is key, Pratt said. "Congress will eventually respond to pressure from the grassroots," she argued, "but we need to continue organizing, especially with communities that have not traditionally been involved with sentencing reform. We need to work with the churches and with large national organizations that have constituencies adversely impacted by mandatory minimums, such as La Raza in the Latino community."