The headline was enough to cause this West Virginia criminal defense attorney to stop in his tracks. It read, “Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll of Minimum Mandatory Sentencing.” He had me at “harsh human toll.” Seriously. The story, published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, provides great background information about how minimum mandatory sentencing came to be – and frames the struggle for balance over keeping communities safe from crime and paying the huge cost of incarceration.
Most interesting to me were the comments made by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson expressing his disapproval of mandatory minimum sentencing. Here’s what he said: “Mandatory minimums, to some degree, sometimes entirely, take judging out of the mix. That’s a bad thing for our system.” I couldn’t agree more. Over the years, I have represented myriad clients who have been charged with federal drug crimes, many of whom were first-time offenders struggling with addiction and in need of help – rehab – to turn their lives around, not stiff mandatory sentences.
But that’s not the judge’s only comment I found to be profound. Here’s an excerpt from the piece: In the current system, only 3 percent of federal cases ever go to trial. He says prosecutors can use the threat of mandatory minimums to coerce guilty pleas and long sentences. “Plea bargains are struck in the United States attorney’s office – nobody sees them happen, there’s no transparency,” Gleeson says. “Transparency in and of itself is a very important value in our system, and we don’t have enough of it. The trials are disappearing.”
Again: As a West Virginia criminal defense lawyer who represents many federal drug clients, I can tell you there are very few that go to trial – and I, too, believe that fear of being convicted and forced to serve a mandatory minimum sentence has a lot to do with it. Sometimes, it’s in the client’s best interest not to take a chance and instead try to negotiate a suitable guilty plea. While a number of lawmakers, experts, and lawyers (myself included) would like to see a change in the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the story indicates that there’s been very little movement on that front.