The Justice Department thinks that mandatory minimum sentencing laws have placed a strain on the federal penitentiary system, disparately impact demographic groups and result in undue leniency for white collar crimes and some child exploitation offenses.
But there isn’t much support in Congress or within the federal criminal justice system for a structural change of federal sentencing, a Justice Department representative told the U.S. Sentencing Commission at a hearing on Thursday morning.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Sally Quillian Yates testified on behalf of the Justice Department. In her prepared testimony, Yates noted that DOJ’s Sentencing and Corrections Working Group, chaired by Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, has involved over 100 officials from across the Justice Department.
Pressed by members of the commission, Yates would not say which of the 170 mandatory minimums the Justice Department did not believe were necessary. She said the department’s position was that the commission should recommend to Congress which statutes should be revised, but said the DOJ would be happy to work with the commission.
“This is the starting point and not the ending point,” said Yates.
The Justice Department believes the commission should do a statute by statute analysis of the 170 federal sentencing guidelines, and that DOJ employees were ready to “roll up their sleeves and work with” the commission, said Yates.
Yates also touted a memo sent to federal prosecutors last week that gave prosecutors more flexibility in making charging decisions and deciding on recommended sentences in criminal cases.
Asked by a commissioner whether the Holder memo could create greater disparity between sentences for the same crime because it gave prosecutors more flexibility, Yates said she did not think it would. “It places the responsibility on federal prosecutors to consider the specific circumstances of the case when making the determination as to what to charge,” she said.
Yates said that the Northern District of Georgia was facing a number of challenges. It has experienced more bank failures than any other district, has a growing gang problem and one of the highest rates of mortgage fraud and is the number one district in the exportation of illegal firearms, she said. She said Northern Georgia has become the East Coast hub for Mexican cartels. “Miami now gets its dope from us,” Yates said. Those challenges have forced the U.S. Attorney’s office to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jay Rorty testified that the mandatory minimums “create excessive prosecutorial discretion, which is exercised in an arbitrary manner and used to coerce defendants into relinquishing their constitutional rights and punish defendants when they exercise those rights.” He acknowledged that Congress is unlikely to taking action to change mandatory minimums.
“Although we believe the correct policy choice is clear, we understand that good policy and good politics do not always align, and that Congress may not yet be prepared to abolish all federal mandatory minimums,” Rorty said.
A representative of the Fraternal Order of Police testified in support of mandatory minimums, which he said been an effective deterrence for crimes. An American Bar Association representative testified that sentencing by mandatory minimums “is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy.”