The Stamford Advocate has this story today, chronicling the problem with minimum-mandatory sentences in drug cases and the growing calls for a change in the legislation.
The problem with mandatory-minimums has become apparent over the past few years and many states have or are considering abolishing them. However, they still exist in Connecticut and defense attorneys and judges have the same complaint:
Few people are convicted of mandatory minimum charges in drug cases. Instead, prosecutors use the threat of a mandatory minimum conviction as leverage to entice guilty pleas to lesser charges.
A variety of attorneys, judges and experts statewide want mandatory minimum laws scrapped or adjusted. About two dozen states have adjusted mandatory minimum rules in the last decade as critics complain they result in severe sentences and prison overcrowding.
Connecticut has a task force whose job is to review sentencing schemes and recommend changes
“I think we should just get rid of them,” said Thomas Ullmann, a public defender in New Haven and a member of the task force. “Prosecutors bully people all the time with mandatory minimums.”
Prosecutors admit they use mandatory minimum charges as a negotiating tool. But they point out that police choose the charges in most Connecticut jurisdictions, including Stamford and Norwalk. The bargaining, prosecutors say, saves defendants prison time by giving them the chance to plead guilty to lesser charges instead of risking a trial and a minimum prison term.
“The legislature put us in a straitjacket,” said David Cohen, state’s attorney for the Stamford-Norwalk judicial district, “but if we don’t feel a mandatory minimum is appropriate, we can lower the charges.”
Well, either the state is bound by these mandatory-minimums or can offer a plea on lesser charges. What usually happens, however, is that the threat of min-man sentences are used to pressure the defendant into pleading to something and not seeking acceptance into a program.
The statistics are overwhelming:
There are about 26,000 cases each year statewide involving mandatory minimum charges, according to a 2005 state study. In about 21,000 of those cases, the main charge is selling drugs or driving under the influence of alcohol.
The rest involve violent crimes such as rape, murder and kidnapping.
Six different drug charges require mandatory minimum sentences ranging from two to 10 years.
Police often charge drug defendants with several of those charges in the same case; about 70 percent of mandatory minimum charges are drug-related, the 2005 study found.
Judges have some discretion, but not enough. This is the knock on rigid sentencing schemes, including guidelines like those in Federal court. Sentencing should be case-specific, based on the individual facts and circumstances of each prosecution. Mandatory-minimum sentences take away that discretion and there is no ability to shape the sentence to best suit the facts of a particular case.