Implementation of Tough Federal Sentences Varies by Region of Country

By - November 11, 2013
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As far as drug dealers are concerned, Lori Newhouse is a small timer. She is a high school drop out from a small town in Iowa. She has three sons and has low paying work as a telemarketer. But she also has a methamphetamine habit. In 2011, she purchased some cold tablets that are used to make meth and she traded them to an illegal drug lab for a gram of meth.

Federal agents busted her and now she is in jail. Drug sentences in northern Iowa are some of the toughest in the country. Prosecutors determined that her past conviction on a federal drug charge qualified her for a double mandatory minimum sentence – 10 years.

But US District Judge Mark Bennett, who has been a fierce critic of mandatory sentences, thought this was not a good idea. He wrote that Newhouse is not the Pablo Escobar of Iowa.

In a prison interview in Iowa, Newhouse said that she was a nobody in that drug case and should not have been treated so harshly.

Under recent mandatory sentencing rules, what is happening is that prosecutors and not judges often are deciding how long drug offenders will stay in prison. This is resulting in federal prisons being full of drug offenders.

Attorney General Eric Holder is now trying to get the US Justice Department to get away from these mandatory sentences that end up putting thousands of small time drug addicts and street drug dealers into prison long term.

Prosecutors have a lot of discretion under these sentencing laws. If they mention in the charging document how much drug was seized, it may trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. If they do not mention this, there is no minimum sentence. For the drug offender that has a previous conviction, prosecutors can file an 851 motion, which makes the sentence double.

Mandatory sentencing laws were supposed to lead to higher uniformity, but statistics indicate that there are big variations across the US in how prosecutors are using the laws. Attorney General Holder has told prosecutors that they should avoid using mandatory sentences against low level offenders who are not violent. Still, prosecutors have the authority to decide which small time drug dealer or user gets the break and which gets the hammer.

In the months since Holder came out with his new policy, some US attorneys are pulling back. According to a federal public defender in Florida, tough minimum sentencing has gone on for years and no one had the guts to change it. Now change is coming, but still, many low level offenders have been sentenced harshly in recent years, and those changes won’t help them.

The mandatory minimum sentence law first passed in 1986, after University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from a drug overdose. The idea of the new law was to target big time drug dealers and traffickers. But many district judges say they rarely see a ‘drug kingpin or big time dealer.’ Most of the time, they deal with small time meth users who become small time dealers so they can supply themselves with the drug.

Congress now is thinking about revising the mandatory sentencing laws. Senators Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy have sponsored a bill that would let federal judges disregard the sentences in some cases.

This won’t come too soon, in the view of opponents of the mandatory sentences. A recent study by the US Sentencing Commission found that 48% of all drug defendants in Iowa got a mandatory minimum sentence in 2010. This is the third highest rate in the US.

The changes are coming too late for people such as Newhouse, who got an 851 enhancement in her case. She could have gotten up to 22 years, but she ended up with 10. Still that seems a rather harsh penalty for such a small time drug addict and dealer.