IN recent months, police departments and prison systems have been taking heat for the systemic abuses that mar our nation’s justice system. But one key player has been notably absent: For decades, our federal court system has been quietly perpetrating some of the deepest injustices in the name of the war on drugs.
Federal laws passed at the height of our punitive frenzy in the 1980s have been abused by overzealous federal prosecutors to compel guilty pleas and obtain long, unjust prison sentences, especially against black drug defendants. We must rein in these practices if we are to reshape our country’s criminal justice system for the 21st century.
Prosecutors have a number of tools at their disposal, the most powerful of which is the “851,” which can be filed against those with prior drug convictions to at least double mandatory minimum sentences. In the worst case, a 10-year mandatory minimum becomes a life sentence without parole for a defendant with two prior convictions.
The 851 statute was passed in 1970 to give prosecutors more discretion to seek harsh sentences against only the most serious offenders, and exempt lower-level defendants. But it has been deployed in exactly the opposite manner.