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Mandatory Minimums: 5 over the Top Drug Conviction Cases

From the ineffectual “just say no” campaign of the 1980s to the memorable “this is your brain on drugs” cracked-egg analogy, to today’s legalized marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington state, plenty of interested parties have been waging advocacy efforts on drug use and abuse for decades, with varying degrees of success.

You could argue that one of the less-successful initiatives is the mandatory minimum sentence imposed by many courts. This kind of sentencing does not take into account the circumstances surrounding the drug case or the prior record of the accused.

Excessive Drug Penalties

Doing DrugsTherefore, the courts roll roughshod over the personal lives of many defendants, creating punishments that do not fit the crime. The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums provide some stunning examples:

  1. A Florida man addicted to painkillers after a high-school sports injury received 25 years in prison after an undercover police informant asked him to supply her with Vicodin for her (non-existent) back pain. In this case, even the judge felt the sentence was too harsh, but because of the law, his hands were tied.
  2. A Norfolk, VA teenager who made the unwise choice to join a gang of cocaine and heroin distributors got life behind bars at age 19 when he was dubbed the “leader” of this conspiracy. At age 39 and still in prison, this man has now spent more than half his life incarcerated and faces the rest of his life behind bars as well.
  3. A drug-addicted woman who arranged a single sale of crack cocaine to a neighbor who turned out to be an informant was sentenced to 20 years. The woman thought only cocaine was in the package she sold, but when it turned out that crack was added, the mandatory minimum sentence effectively tripled her time behind bars.
  4. A Florida man with two drug convictions behind him suffered the “three strikes you’re out” penalty when he was picked up for street-level dealing of heroin and cocaine. The defendant was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, prompting the judge to say, “This man doesn’t deserve a life sentence.”
  5. Meanwhile, USA Today tells the story of Sandra Avery, a drug addict with three minor possession convictions. Arrested for dealing a small amount of crack, Avery was told she had a choice: either plead guilty, go without a trial and get a mandatory 10 year sentence; or go to trial and if (more typically, when) convicted, face life behind bars.

“Federal prosecutors routinely threaten severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty,” notes USA Today. “And these are no idle threats. Human Rights Watch, in a new report, calculates that defendants who insist on going to trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain.”

What to Do If You’re Arrested?

If you’re arrested on drug charges or any other charge, your best bet is to follow the standard procedures for an accused person. Stay calm and don’t attempt to escape or fight, but say nothing about your case until you have a lawyer present. Ask the arresting officer if you are free to leave. You do not have to consent to a search of your car, house or body, but if the officer may perform a “pat down” if he or she suspects you are carrying a weapon.

What Else You Can Do?

To gain more perspective on the mandatory minimum issue, you can learn more about mandatory minimums and federal sentencing guidelines. If you’re prepared to add your voice to the debate, #EndTheWarOnDrugs is a coalition of civil rights leaders, members of the sports, entertainment, music and faith communities; business leaders, elected officials and academics who recently drafted a letter to President Obama to support the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would amend the criminal code to authorize a federal court to impose a sentence below a statutory minimum if necessary.

* Office of Public Affairs by Operation Triple Beam II / CC BY-ND 2.0

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