RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're continuing our conversation about criminal justice reform this week, specifically the effect of mandatory minimum sentencing. Critics say these minimums disproportionately affect minorities and are part of the failed war on drugs, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions is instructing federal prosecutors to apply those minimums across the board, especially in drug cases. Yesterday, we heard from Georgetown law professor and former prosecutor Bill Otis. He supports the Justice Department's policy.
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BILL OTIS: The system of guidelines and mandatory minimums has been a big success if one judges the success of the criminal justice system by the crime rate rather than the incarceration rate.
MARTIN: Although some judges think the incarceration rate is a big part of the problem. Mark Bennett is one of them. He's a federal judge from Iowa's Northern District. Bennett says mandatory minimum laws have forced him to put more than a thousand people in prison for lengthy stays, sometimes for the rest of their lives. And in a majority of those cases, Judge Bennett says the punishment didn't fit the crime.
MARK BENNETT: These mandatory minimums are so incredibly harsh, and they're triggered by such low levels of drugs that they snare at these non-violent, low-level addicts who are involved in drug distribution mostly to obtain drugs to feed their habit. They have a medical problem. It's called addiction, and they're going to be faced with five and 10 and 20-year and sometimes life mandatory minimum sentences. I think that's a travesty.
MARTIN: So people who support this policy change will argue, as has Attorney General Sessions, that there's no real thing as a low-level drug crime, that inherently violence is kind of baked into this experience. If you want to collect a drug debt, Sessions says, you can't file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun. So how do you respond to that?
BENNETT: There's actually a very easy, simple response to that. Any one of my 660 federal district court judge colleagues when there's actual violence involved in a case will impose a higher sentence than if there was no violence involved in the case. So that's really a red herring argument. And, you know, when I read the - Attorney General Session's memo, I noticed he was talking about consistency and fairness.
MARTIN: Yeah. They argued that mandatory minimums help ensure consistency, and as a result, the laws become more egalitarian.
BENNETT: Yeah. Well, I think just the opposite is true. Mandatory minimums support unwarranted uniformity by treating everyone alike even though their situations are dramatically different. So, for example, you have a low-level non-violent drug offender. One is selling methamphetamine for profit, and one is using methamphetamine and maybe trading it to other drug addicts to support their addiction.
Does it really make sense to treat a for-profit seller and a non-for-profit user the same? I don't think so because Congress has also said we're supposed to look at the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant. And, in fact, I think it's important to go back and look at the history of the mandatory minimums.
They came about because Len Bias, a basketball player, died of powder cocaine overdose but everybody assumed it was crack. And that's what triggered this massive political ratcheting up and passing the mandatory minimums. And it wasn't just Democrats, and it wasn't just Republicans, they were outbidding each other trying to increase and ratchet up the mandatory minimums.
And the interesting thing is that bill passed without a single congressional hearing, not a single federal judge was called to testify, not a single person from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There were no criminologists, no penologists, just no pharmacologists. And they picked these mandatory minimums and the drug quantities literally out of thin air.
MARTIN: Let me ask you, there have been some of your colleagues, some judges have felt so strongly about the mandatory minimums that they have resigned. They have stepped down from the bench in protest. Is that something you would consider doing? If not, why stay? Why do you find it to be more valuable to stay in your position?
BENNETT: Well, I've certainly thought about it because I obviously have a very strong opposition to mandatory minimums. But when I was sworn in as a United States district court judge, I took an oath to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not.
So the fact that I have a personal disagreement with not all mandatory minimums - some are justified - but in my judgment, about 80 percent of them are unfair, so I thought I could do more staying in the system. I respect the judges who have said they can no longer do it and decide to resign, but I'm not there yet.
MARTIN: Mark Bennett is a U.S. district court judge for the Northern District of Iowa. Judge Bennett, thank you so much for talking with us.
BENNETT: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having me.
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