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Reno Sparks Debate on Drug Sentencing

House hearings to take up attorney general's call to rethink mandatory minimums

WITH five terms as a popular prosecutor in Miami behind her and a growing reputation as a no-nonsense attorney general, Janet Reno is lending new credibility to an effort to rethink one aspect of the national war on drugs.

Currently, mandatory minimums impose strict prison terms without parole for drug-related crimes. Enacted in 1986, the requirements are intended to stiffen sentences and prevent grossly unequal sentences in different cases.

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But criticism of strict sentences is growing. They have fed a doubling of the federal prison population, raising concern that more dangerous criminals may have to be released to make room for drug offenders. Trial lawyers and federal judges also criticize mandatory minimum sentences as unconstitutional restrictions on judicial power and the civil rights of the accused.

Ms. Reno ordered a review of federal sentencing policies on May 3. She has expressed particular concern about nonviolent drug offenders who are given lengthy sentences under federal mandatory minimums. Since then, debate has intensified on this issue in Congress and the judiciary.

Reno's leadership on this issue followed the refusals of two federal judges in New York to hear drug cases because of their frustration with the unfairness of mandatory sentences. Several days before Reno's call for the review, Harold Greene, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., refused to sentence a small-time drug offender to a mandatory 30-year sentence.

"Any rational judge would not dream of imposing such a sentence," Judge Greene said.

Reno's attention to this issue comes at a critical time. The Sentencing Uniformity Act of 1993, which would repeal all mandatory minimums, awaits House hearings.

"Janet Reno is a tough prosecutor and has a happily realistic view as to the fiasco Congress has created with these wholesale statutes creating mandatory minimums," said Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, the bill's sponsor.

But proponents of mandatory sentences say they are a crucial part of the tough anti-drug strategies initiated in the 1980s. Ninety-one percent of all mandatory sentences are given to drug offenders, and more than 60 percent of prison inmates are doing time for drug-related crimes. Mandatory minimums were strongly backed by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and Reno's move to rethink their severity has revived charges that Democrats are "soft on crime."

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"They shouldn't only be kept, they should be expanded," said Larry Neal, a spokesman for Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas. "It doesn't matter whether it's the first, 10th, 100th, or 1,000th offense or whether it's a lowly street seller or a big kingpin making millions of dollars in drug deals, it's still a drug crime."

If sentencing policies remain as they are, the federal prison population is expected to reach 116,000 inmates by 1999, and the prison operating budget will exceed $3.6 billion, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Reno's findings "will not be written in stone but may produce a complementary strategy" to the nation's anti-drug program, says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, who worked as an assistant state attorney under Reno in Florida.

"Reno certainly wasn't soft on crime in Miami," he added.

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