Mandatory madness

The Baltimore Sun

During the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly, the House of Delegates rejected a bill that would have given courtroom judges greater sentencing leeway for first-time, nonviolent drug law offenders - including drug treatment programs rather than prison. The bill, sponsored by Del. Curtis S. Anderson of Baltimore, would have been a step in the right direction, but it was defeated for the usual reason: politicians' fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

Here's why this kind of sentencing reform makes sense:

For 20 years, state legislators dictated rigid prison sentences for people convicted of drug-related offenses - even if presiding judges, after learning the facts in a case, favored lesser punishments. These cart-before-the-horse laws bring to mind the wacky world of Alice in Wonderland. When the Knave, accused of stealing tarts, got his day in court and the King ordered the jury to consider their verdict, the Queen cried, "No, no! Sentence first - verdict afterwards."

Like Alice, we find ourselves in a wonderland of topsy-turvy rules and miscarried justice. In America's drug war drama, the Knave's part is played by drug users, the King is replaced by government prosecutors, and state legislators sitting in distant state capitals take the part of the Queen, prescribing sentences long before judges and juries in courthouses arrive at their verdicts.

Mr. Anderson says his sentencing reform proposal is based on reports from Maryland judges and drug treatment providers - most of whom favor treatment programs, not prison terms, for small-time, nonviolent drug offenders. But Maryland lawmakers are not alone in resisting sensible reforms to sentencing laws. According to a 2006 National Center for State Courts survey, only 15 states were actively at work repealing or preventing the adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Meanwhile, six other states were busy creating new mandatory minimum penalties.

Although Maryland's mandatory sentencing laws are aimed at repeat drug offenders, the Justice Policy Institute reports that simple drug possession here can send a person to prison for four years. A second conviction for selling drugs brings a 10-year mandatory sentence, while a third conviction means 25 years.

Last year, the Maryland legislature tried to ease the 10-year sentence requirement with a bill allowing twice-convicted drug dealers the possibility of parole. Gov. Martin O'Malley vetoed that bill.

The JPI report ends on this note: "Maryland's mandatory minimums for drug offenses represent a significant policy barrier to shifting ineffective public safety spending in the form of long prison terms toward a more efficient, treatment-centered approach. ... The state should commit an additional $30 million to substance abuse treatment in 2008 to meet urgent needs in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state."

Elected officials are quick to pander to the whims of the voters. If their constituents want tough-on-crime laws, legislators go for the votes. Judges, on the other hand, are inclined to weigh the facts in a case and seek a just punishment based on the circumstances. And because the circumstances in each case are unique, informed judges are far better equipped than legislators to make sure each offender pays a just price for his or her actions. One-size-fits-all punishments inevitably pervert justice.

America needs enlightened sentencing, not blind uniformity. That's why it is time to get our "sentence-first, verdict-later" lawmakers in Annapolis (and around the nation) out of the courtroom - and let judges do their jobs.

Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. His e-mail is

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