In a recent letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) opposes any attempt to "alter or eliminate the current federal sentencing policy regarding mandatory minimum sentencing." According to Frank Terreri, FLEOA's vice president for legislative affairs, the current rules are "essential to public safety and that of our membership," and " any change in the mandatory minimum sentencing standard does a disservice to the brave men and women who are asked to put their lives on the line to protect us from terrorists and criminals." The closest Terreri comes to an explanation of that position is his claim that "the system in place… allows progression up the scale of criminal organizations from low-level subject to higher ranking members through the effect of the mandatory minimum sentencing act."
In other words, the threat of draconian sentences pressures low-level offenders to provide information about people higher up in their organizations, thereby qualifying for downward departures from the prescribed penalties or avoiding charges that carry mandatory minimums. Terreri does not claim that mandatory minimums are just—only that they are useful. Yet the fact that prosecutors will certify a sentence as appropriate in the context of a plea bargain raises serious questions about whether a much longer sentence for the very same offense can be appropriate simply because the defendant decides he wants a trial. And what about a defendant who has no useful information to offer, perhaps because his involvement with the targeted organization is minimal? How can it possibly be just to punish such people more severely than others who are more involved and therefore can offer the sort of cooperation that will earn them a shorter sentence?
Barbara Scrivner, for example, was arrested for helping distribute methamphetamine in 1992. Prosecutors offered her a 10-year sentence in exchange for her cooperation. But according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "she knew nothing about the conspiracy beyond her husband's participation," so she opted for a trial. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while other defendants who played more important roles in the meth operation received sentences of 10 years or less. This is the system Terreri is defending.
It gets worse. FLEOA's objection to any changes in sentencing rules, based on the dubious premise that current law is perfect in every respect, means the group opposes the Smarter Sentencing Act, which the Senate Judiciary Committee approved by a 13-to-5 vote in January. Among other things, that bill would make retroactive the reduced crack cocaine penalties that a nearly unanimous Congress approved in 2010. That provision could help thousands of crack offenders who are serving sentences that almost everyone now agrees are too long. Yet Terreri says that step, which basic fairness demands, somehow would reduce the ability of law enforcement officers to "protect us from terrorists and criminals." Even if you accept the equation of nonviolent drug offenders with predatory criminals, that position makes no sense, since retroactive application of sentence reductions that have already been enacted cannot possibly reduce the leverage that the feds have with people they are busting today.