Along with my former colleague Erik Luna, I’ve just published an article on mandatory mimimum sentences. The article, which can be downloaded from SSRN here, tries to find common ground on the issue of revising mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal justice system. Here’s the abstract:
One of us (Cassell) is a former federal judge nominated by President George W. Bush, now a “conservative” scholar whose work is often supportive of law enforcement, the death penalty, and the rights of crime victims. The other (Luna) is a “libertarian” who tends to be suspicious of government and adamant about abuses of power, including those by police and prosecutors, and his scholarship has expressed the need for wholesale criminal justice reform (especially in the federal system). If we could find common ground on ways to modify federal mandatory minimums, we hoped that policymakers might share this agreement, perhaps sowing the seeds of further reforms. Whether or not modest congressional action spurs greater feats, however, our proposal is far from death defying. It is instead a fairly unpretentious yet principled modification.
Part I of this Article begins by briefly describing the background of mandatory minimum sentencing, including arguments for and against mandatory minimums and an analysis of their enactment in the federal system. Part II considers the resilience of mandatory minimums from a behavioral science perspective and then sketches a potential process of reform in light of the relevant phenomena. Part III discusses the concept of minimalism in philosophy and legal theory, proposing the idea of “political minimalism” as a justification for reform efforts that seeks consensus on basic principles accompanied by small legislative steps. Part IV provides specific changes to federal law consistent with a minimalist approach to statutory modification. Finally, Part V offers some suggestions for further reforms, with the hope of inspiring dialogue on the propriety of legislatively compelled, judicially unavoidable punishment.
Congress has ordered the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study the issue of mandatory minimums. The Commission will issue a report on the subject in the not-too-distant future, so the subject of our article is hopefully a timely one.