Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a widely (and rightly) decried memo to federal prosecutors instructing them to aim for the harshest possible sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders.
As I explained then, Sessions’ new policy reversed a previous policy in which prosecutors could leave unmentioned the quantity of drugs involved in these low-level cases to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. That restored local discretion to judges and prosecutors, undermining a callous, one-size-fits-all federal system of ruining people’s lives over petty mistakes.
It’s in that context of criminal justice regression that the testimony of Iowa’s Judge Mark Bennett is so important.
Bennett has been on the bench at various levels for nearly three decades, and he’s an outspoken critic of the unjust mandatory minimums Sessions loves. “I basically couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak out,” he recently explained. “I’m compelled to talk about it because I think it’s one of the gravest injustices in the history of America.”
“The burden of having given so many unjust sentences is a very heavy thing for me to carry around,” Bennett added. “I do not consider myself soft on crime, but I consider myself opposed to mandatory minimums for low level non-violent drug dealers who are basically addicts.”
Just how bad is the problem? Well, as CNN reports (emphasis added):
Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust — but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on individual circumstances of the defendant.
Too often, Bennett says, low-level nonviolent drug addicts dealing to feed their habit end up being sentenced like drug kingpins. […] He’s watched a stream of what he considers low-level offenders going through the courts turn into a flood. It repeated across the country, overwhelming federal prisons to the extent that half of inmates were serving time for drug offenses.
The judge is in good company in his desire for reform: Nearly eight in 10 Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and restoring judicial discretion. (Though they’re supposed to be our representatives, clearly eight in 10 members of Congress don’t agree.)
Bennett had high hopes for bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, but at the federal level, those have significantly stalled thanks to the outdated and counterfactual drug warrior posturing of the Trump administration. For now, however, he’s stuck issuing sentences he knows are excessive and unjust.