President Barack Obama’s recent statement regarding Trayvon Martin has sentencing reform supporters hoping for action on racial inequities in drug law enforcement.
In a surprise statement on Friday, Obama addressed the reaction to the trial of George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty after killing a black teenager during an altercation last year.
The verdict, which has inflamed racial tension, is an opportunity to examine the racial disparities in the legal system, said Obama.
“There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws,” he said. “And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
If Obama were serious about addressing these disparities, he should throw his support behind criminal sentencing reform, said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law.
“Criticism of mandatory minimums has been of significant focal point for minority communities and those who are broadly concerned that certain populations uniquely bear the brunt of the criminal sentencing structure,” Berman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Under federal laws, judges are required to apply harsh minimum sentences in certain cases, typically relating to drug crimes or illegal firearm possessions. These laws shift the power to the prosecutors who get to decide the initial charges, and often hit poor and minority communities the hardest.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (JSVA), which was introduced in both chambers of Congress earlier this year, would relax the enforcement of mandatory minimums.
“It gives judges authority — if they think the facts support a lesser sentence — to provide written articulation of why they believe going below the mandatory minimum is appropriate,” said Berman.
The bill enjoys bipartisan support, and was sponsored by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate, and Virginia Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott and Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie in the House.
The president, however, has yet to take a stance. Obama was open to sentencing reform when he was still a candidate for office, but has so far remained silent on JSVA.
Last week, some 53 former judges and prosecutors sent a letter to Reps. Scott and Massie endorsing the bill. Judges should have more sentencing discretion in these cases, they said.
“In drug cases, for example, a court might determine that a shorter prison term combined with mandatory drug treatment would be more likely to prevent an individual from re-offending,” they wrote.
But nothing would improve the bill’s odds of passage as greatly as Obama’s official endorsement.
“If he does not, the president’s failure to champion sentencing reform may become his most lasting federal criminal-justice legacy,” wrote Berman and Harlan Protass, a defense attorney, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
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