When US District Judge Mark Bennett hands down a harsh prison sentence for drug crimes, he doesn't give a lecture on the harms drugs do to the community. He instead apologizes, saying, "My hands are tied on your sentence. I'm sorry. This isn't up to me."
In a new story by the Washington Post's Eli Saslow, Bennett criticizes the impact of harsh mandatory minimum sentences established in the 1980s, which can require judges to imprison drug offenders — even nonviolent ones — for decades at a time.
Although Bennett has locked up genuinely violent criminals in the past, much of his work has focused — despite his protest and feelings of "guilt and sadness" — on more than 1,100 nonviolent offenders, the Post found:
And now it was another Tuesday in Sioux City[, Iowa] — five hearings listed on his docket, five more nonviolent offenders whose cases involved mandatory minimums of anywhere from five to 20 years without the possibility of release. Here in the methamphetamine corridor of middle America, Bennett averaged seven times as many cases each year as a federal judge in New York City or Washington. He had sentenced two convicted murderers to death and several drug cartel bosses to life in prison, but many of his defendants were addicts who had become middling dealers, people who sometimes sounded to him less like perpetrators than victims in the case reports now piled high on his bench. "History of family addiction." "Mild mental retardation." "PTSD after suffering multiple rapes." "Victim of sexual abuse." "Temporarily homeless." "Heavy user since age 14."
This work has troubled Bennett so much that he now travels to prisons around the country to visit people he has sentenced, offering them answers to their legal questions and help getting them to drug treatment classes. In court, he often makes remarks like, "Congress has tied my hands," and, "I have to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not."
Bennett isn't the first judge to share this kind of sentiment. Paul Cassell, a retired judge from Utah, earlier this year lamented the 55-year sentence he handed down to Weldon Angelos for selling marijuana while in possession of a firearm. "I do think about Angelos," Cassell told ABC News. "I sometimes drive on the interstate by the prison where he's held, and I think, 'That wasn't the right thing to do, and the system forced me to do it.'"
But upholding those congressionally mandated sentences has very serious consequences: America is now the world's leader in incarceration — and, at least in federal prisons, mandatory minimums are one of the major causes.
Mandatory minimum sentences contributed to mass incarceration in federal prisons
In the 1980s, Congress and President Ronald Reagan approved mandatory minimum sentences in the federal government's escalation of its war on drugs. These sentences attach a minimum to drug offenses, ranging from five years to decades.
The result: federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent, according to the Post. (The story in the much larger state prison system, where there are far more violent offenders, is different.)
This has amounted to what Bennett describes to the Post as misspent money on imprisonment. The US's high rates of incarcerations are believed to have played very little role in the drop in violent crime over the past 25 years, according to a review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice. And drug trafficking remains as lucrative as ever, with rates of drug use fluctuating up and down over the past several decades despite Congress's escalation of the drug war.
But Congress has shown little willingness to loosen mandatory minimum sentences. President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have both called for reform, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees sentencing laws, has resisted any legislation, claiming that mass incarceration has contributed to America's crime drop.
Bennett disagrees. Coming off sentencing a nonviolent meth addict to 10 years in prison, he considered the direct effects — one more nonviolent offender in an overcrowded prison, and another $300,000 in government spending for incarceration.
"I would have given him a year in rehab if I could," the judge told his assistant. "How does 10 years make anything better? What good are we doing?"