The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Mandy Simon, (202) 675-2312;

ACLU Advocates for Abolition of Mandatory Minimums Before U.S. Sentencing Commission


American Civil Liberties Union testified today before the U.S.
Sentencing Commission (USSC) that mandatory minimums should be abolished
or reformed because they generate unnecessarily harsh sentences, tie
judges' hands in considering individual circumstances, create racial
disparities in sentencing and empower prosecutors to force defendants to
bargain away their constitutional rights. Congress has mandated that
the USSC provide a report on mandatory minimums by October 2010. ACLU
Drug Law Reform Project Director Jay Rorty urged the commission to
reaffirm its long stated position that mandatory minimums should be
abolished and asked the commission to take steps independent of Congress
to mitigate the harms of existing mandatory minimum sentences.

Sentencing Commission was created by Congress to draft a sentencing
guideline scheme to bring uniformity to federal sentencing. The
commission's guidelines were mandatory until the Supreme Court held in
2005 that a mandatory scheme violated the Sixth Amendment right to a
jury trial and made the guidelines advisory. Mandatory minimums are
enacted by Congress and place limits on the power of federal judges to
reduce sentences below the levels set by Congress.

minimum sentences defeat the purposes of sentencing, create unwarranted
racial disparity and over-crowd our prison system. They take discretion
away from judges and give it to prosecutors who use these high
sentences to frustrate constitutional rights," said Rorty in his
testimony today.

1991, the USSC delivered a report to Congress denouncing mandatory
minimums and calling for their abolition. The report gathered widespread
support from policymakers, judges and practitioners in the field of
federal sentencing. But in the years since the report, Congress
increased the number and length of mandatory minimum sentences.

The commission has historically set penalties at or above the
levels dictated by Congress. The ACLU asked the USSC to assess the true
harms of drug and other offenses carrying mandatory minimums and
establish penalties that reflect a rational assessment of individual

"We cannot continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to
sentencing. Instead, we must balance public safety with the need to
assist individuals on the path to health and rehabilitation," Rorty
continued. "The commission is an expert body and can employ its
knowledge and resources to craft fair and effective sentences. The
commission should tell Congress to abolish the mandatory minimum
sentencing structure and rely on the advisory guidelines to set policy."

mandatory minimum that Congress is poised to revise is that governing
crack cocaine offenses. The law, which penalizes five grams of crack as
harshly as 500 grams of cocaine, has been denounced by the ACLU,
congressional leaders and the Obama Administration as racially unfair.
The Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the 100:1 crack-powder ratio to
18:1, has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. The
bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum for simple possession.

mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine have been a stain on our
justice system for nearly 20 years," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of
the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "The Fair Sentencing Act will
allow Congress to take decisive action for the first time in reworking a
mandatory minimum statute. Though the bill leaves a hefty and unnecessary disparity, it is a significant
first step in the fight to equalize punishment for the same drug. Congress cannot miss this historic opportunity to
bring about real and much-needed change for all Americans."

To read
the ACLU's statement, go to:

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation's guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

(212) 549-2666