Dean Ronald Weich is quoted today in a Washington Post story on the human toll of the government’s decades-long war on drugs and on the particular damage done by mandatory-minimum sentences.
Reporter Sari Horwitz‘s article — “From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence: Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison” — is the third in a series titled “Unwinding the Drug War.”
Horwitz tells the story of Sharanda Jones, prisoner 33177-077 at the Carswell women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Jones, a first-time, nonviolent offender, was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999 by a federal judge after she was convicted on a single cocaine offense.
Writes Horwitz: “Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today. Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment. In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.”
But the hangover from the years of harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing continues.
Jones is among about 100,000 federal inmates — about half the total population — doing time for drug offenses. Of them, many thousands are nonviolent offenders serving life without the possibility of parole. Four in five are black, like Sharanda Jones, or Hispanic.
Weich, who served as a special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the late 1980s, told the Post that mandatory-minimum sentences were about math, not about people.
Said Weich: “These laws forced judges to look at their calculators instead of into the eyes of the defendants they were sentencing. They weren’t allowed to ask, ‘How did they get to this point in their lives?’ and ‘Who were they going to be in five or 20 years?’ ”
President Barack Obama, who this week granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders, is visiting Oklahoma today to promote a plan to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. Such a move was championed by former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2014 called mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders “draconian.”