Rand Paul Fights Unjust Sentences

A Senate hearing highlights the case against mandatory minimums.

Toward the end of a hearing at which the Senate Judiciary Committee heard about the jaw-dropping injustices caused by mandatory minimum sentences, John Cornyn sounded a note of caution. "We have to be careful not to legislate by anecdote," said the Republican senator from Texas.

Why start now? Congress spends much of its time legislating by anecdote, whether it’s a story about a teenager who killed himself after consuming ersatz marijuana, a college student driven to bank robbery by online poker, or a mass murderer who supposedly used a "military-style assault rifle." Here is one issue where anecdotes are perfectly appropriate, since it is impossible to assess the merits of a sentencing system without examining actual cases. If the law allows, let alone requires, grossly disproportionate penalties, it's a problem that needs to be corrected.

That is something Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) understands. "The injustice of mandatory minimums is impossible to ignore when you hear the stories of the victims," he told the committee at last week's hearing.

Something has gone terribly wrong when criminal defendants can be plausibly described as "victims." But how else should we view Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old rap music entrepreneur who in 2004 received a 55-year­ sentence for selling a few bags of marijuana, totaling 24 ounces, to a police informant?

Never mind that what Angelos did violated no one's rights and therefore should not have been treated as a crime at all. It would be hard for even a committed prohibitionist to defend the penalty Angelos received. Paul Cassell, the federal judge who imposed the sentence, called it "unjust, cruel, and irrational" but said his hands were tied by mandatory minimums for people who engage in drug trafficking while possessing a gun: five years for the first offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who testified at the Senate hearing, noted that federal drug agents could have busted Angelos after the first transaction but waited for two more, knowing that his possession of a gun would trigger stacked sentences adding up to more than half a century.

Other examples of draconian mandatory minimums mentioned at the hearing included a 10-year sentence received by an 18-year-old first-time offender caught with less than two ounces of cocaine, a 22-year sentence received by an 24-year-old woman who sold 13.9 grams of crack to a police informant, and a 25-year sentence received by a 46-year-old father of three who sold some of his painkillers to someone he thought was his friend. Tolman noted that providing useful information to the government is often the only way to escape mandatory minimums, which are based almost exclusively on drug weight, with the result that drug dealers are treated more leniently than their girlfriends and low-level employees.

Tolman said federal prosecutors tend to measure their accomplishments by the lengths of the sentences they obtain. But sometimes the penalties are so severe that even prosecutors have second thoughts, as with the extraordinary post-trial deal that enabled a Montana medical marijuana supplier who was convicted under the same penalty enhancement provision as Angelos to escape the equivalent of a life sentence.

As Paul observed, "There is no justice here. It is wrong and needs to change." Toward that end, a bill he is sponsoring would allow judges to deviate from mandatory minimums based on the sentencing factors laid out by federal law, which include, along with deterrence and public safety, "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant" as well as "the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment." Although Paul said "we're not repealing mandatory minimums," this change would effectively transform them from requirements into recommendations.

The same thing happened to federal sentencing guidelines (which are written by a commission rather than Congress) as a result of a 2005 Supreme Court decision. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, notes that "judges follow the previously mandatory guidelines in about 80 percent of the cases," adding, "We suspect judges would follow the mandatory minimums for most cases too, at least for a few years until they got used to having discretion again."

Paul left no doubt about his ultimate aim. "I am here to ask today for you to let judges start doing their job," he said. "I am here to ask that we begin today the end of mandatory minimum sentencing." It’s about time.

This column originally appeared at Forbes.

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  • ||

    "We have to be careful not to legislate by anecdote,"

    WTF!?!?

    This is the fucking justice system...the whole point of the justice system is judge each case individually.

    My god John Cornyn is an asshole.

  • pmains||

    This is probably a feature of any system that relies on written legislation. You have to consider not just past cases and current circumstances, but also attempt to anticipate future cases. Because you're trying to extract grandiose, abstract principles rather than address the situation at hand, you can come to pretty perverse results, but, hey, make an omelet and all that. John Hasnas is not too keen on this.

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  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Dumb ass. You don't legislate by anecdote, you ADJUDICATE by anecdote.

  • Hyperion||

    It wouldn't really matter what horror stories of injustice that Paul told to most in congress. They don't fucking care about the common people who these things happen to. The only time they feel any compassion for the little people, is when they see it as something that can further their political career, and then of course, it's completely fake. Obama is the perfect example of this.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Commoner: Mr. President my son has been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit!

    Obama: Did anyone die by a gun?

    Commoner: Excuse me? No. He's doing life for smoking a joint.

    Obama (snaps finger): Newman.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    They legislate on anecdote when the outcry favors their agenda and ignore anecdotal evidence when it shows them the negative impact of what they've passed.

  • Winston||

    So what chance does this have of passing Congress and being signed by Obama?

  • Brandon||

    0 chance of passing Congress. But it gets the assholes like Cornyn on record as voting against it.

  • Winston||

    So does that make Paul a unicorn believer?

  • Brandon||

    No idea. I've never met Paul or discussed strategy with him, but I'm willing to assume that he is playing the long game by getting this conversation started.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Winston...is one of our slow learners. Be patient with him. You know what they say about how strong those people are...

  • Winston||

    So explain to me the difference. What am I missing?

  • Brandon||

    1 senator getting 80 or so of the others on record voting against a popular and fiscally responsible reform should give that senator some public recognition, which comes in handy if he is running for president in 2016. Or it gets voters to start calling those 80 assholes and pressuring them to actually support this reform.

  • Winston||

    I was bashing Suderman for his unicorn believers article, not Paul. Seems like a double standard there.

  • Square||

    "until they got used to having discretion again."

    Judges. Having discretion. Imagine.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    HuffingtonPost, September 24, 2013:

    "RAND PAUL TO ROLLBACK WAR ON DRUGS. WOMEN; MINORITIES HIT HARDEST"
    Why Does Rand Paul Hate Black Children?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • pmains||

    Is the SFed link part of the joke?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    If only.

    Try this.

  • Skip||

    Hes just doing it to fool blacks so he can restart Jim Crow in 2017!!!!

    /every derptard lefty

  • Brandon||

    Come on, not every lefty is this stupid. Only Joe Biden is this stupid.

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    It's like he's the only one trying to tackle issues no one will touch.

  • 4tehsnowflakes||

    It's part of his strategy to position himself as the only R candidate who can draw minority voters. Aligning on this with ACLU and the other organizations that oppose federal minimums follows giving the speech at Howard University.

  • Paul.||

    Jacob Sullum on Rand Paul's Fight to End Mandatory Minimums

    I first read this as Mandatory Muslims.

  • christopherolken||

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  • KenP||

    Aside from the obvious injustice, you use another obvious injustice as an example. The kid that held up the bank was stupid. It is obvious from law after law trying to address stupid that it doesn't prevent stupidity.

    The kid had his fraternity brothers drive him to the bank and wait for him. He thought he was smarter than everyone else and that was a fallacy with both bank robbing and his poker skills.

    I was enjoying playing online poker. I never "clicked on a mouse and lose your house" and as a senior it provided good mental exercise in a moderate to cost free setting. I played at responsible levels and even had success doing so.

    Your referencing an outlier is as distasteful as the anecdotal claims of the Senator. It is hardly the libertarian view I expect here.

  • Barry Williams||

    I am glad to see a Republican taking this on as it was a Republican that elevated taking drugs for other than medicinal reasons to the status of a war: Thank you tricky Dick (Richard Nixon) a criminal of the highest order himself.

    However, he is fighting the wrong battle. Until the "war on drugs" is ended, 10's of thousands of people will have their lives destroyed by the war more so and more certainly by the war.

    This foolishness (prohibition) has been going on for well over 100 years and the result has been to create a huge prison-industrial complex and a criminal enterprise whose actors become more violent by the day.

    Prohibition cause the trade in drugs to be extremely lucrative. With each draconian measure, the value of the transactions increase and the violence increases too.

    I'd ask anyone that is crusading against the end of prohibition to consider that the rules will apply to their loved one's too. I would want to know if they'd choose prison or treatment for their loved one.

    Those out there that insist that they are raising their kids right may well fail as good kids from the best families also get hooked on drugs. Many will use pot at least once and that brings the very real prospect that their child will have their life completely destroyed for the sake of the "drug war" and a joint.

  • Barry Williams||

    Here's the REAL TRUTH: the drug laws will eventually change as evidenced by the current shift in the laws concerning pot. Until the change, possibly millions more otherwise good people will be abused by the continuing injustices of onerous laws administered by jackbooted thugs (SWAT) kicking in doors at the beck of hotshot cops and lawyers.

    The primary victims will remain the poor.

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