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US House committee urged to reform mandatory minimum sentences

[JURIST] The US House Judiciary Committee [official website] on Tuesday examined [committee materials] the effects of mandatory minimum sentences in advance of consideration of three proposed bills intended to provide more discretion to judges during sentencing. Representatives of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the US Judicial Conference and Americans for Tax Reform [advocacy websites] urged the Subcommittee on Crime Terrorism, and Homeland Security Membership [official website] to discard mandatory minimums and reassess the sentencing factors that judges are required to consider. Julie Stewart, President of FAMM, called [testimony, PDF] sentencing mandates "un-American," saying that:

mandatory minimums challenge basic structures on which our government is founded. Federal mandatory minimum laws upset federalism by turning many heretofore state drug offenses into federal crimes. In addition, state and federal mandatory sentencing laws distort traditional roles by transferring judicial discretion to legislatures as well as prosecutors, who, by choice of charge, exercise undue and unreviewable influence over sentencing.

Michael Sullivan, a former US Attorney and partner at Ashcroft Sullivan, emphasized [testimony, PDF] the uniformity and effectiveness of mandatory sentences, adding that "mandatory minimums are an important legislative tool to clearly communicate to the American people the value that Congress puts on crime prevention, reduction of victimization and appropriate punishment."

Last week, a group of federal judges urged [JURIST report] the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] to revise complicated and mechanical calculations used to determine federal criminal sentences. Last month, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] called for a review of disparities between sentencing guidelines for powder and crack cocaine, echoing concerns raised [JURIST report] by Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Lanny Breuer [official profile] in April. In April 2008, a study by the USSC reported [study, PDF; JURIST report] that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses have had their sentences reduced under an amendment to sentencing guidelines. In 2007, the USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties [press release]. In February 2008, then-US Attorney General Michael Mukasey unsuccessfully urged the Senate to block the amendment's retroactive effect [JURIST reports].

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