Article: Repeal drug mandatory minimums

Maile introduced SB 68 Relating to Sentencing:

Allows judges discretion in setting incarceration terms when sentencing drug offenders in certain class B and class C felony cases to make the length of the sentence proportionate to the offense and related conduct. Excludes certain offenses.

Repeal drug mandatory minimums…/20130218_

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 18, 2013

Hawaii is one of the nation’s safest states from violent crime but prison walls have been spilling over to Arizona because of another policy: mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. A federal sentencing commission determined two years ago that such sentencing rules are “excessively severe” and studies in Hawaii agree. Putting offenders behind bars for a requisite period in drug cases is harsh, futile and expensive, and state legislators should put the mandate aside.

Congress approved mandatory minimum sentences as part of the “war on drugs” in the 1970s. Hawaii passed its mandatory minimum for drug offenders in 1986 and so did most other states. By the 1990s, then-U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist acknowledged that those measures were “perhaps a good example of the law of unintended consequences.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws eliminate judicial discretion, testified Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons at the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, which voted to advance the bill last week. “These laws are problematic because they tie the courts’ hands and mandate longer prison sentences, regardless of whether the court believes the punishment is appropriate, based on the circumstances and facts of the case.”

In Hawaii, drug offenders convicted of possessing a certain amount of drugs, a Class B felony, are sentenced to the minimum prison term of five years for possessing a certain amount of “dangerous” drugs, while distributing it to a minor is a Class A, which would automatically end with 10 years imprisonment.

But is that offense such a danger to society? Actually, in a 2006 case study in Hawaii, 97.6 percent of the drug offenses were not violent or personal crimes. The average drug offender spends an average of 39 months in prison, costing taxpayers an average of $85,000 per drug offender, according to a 2009 study by Thomas E. Lengyel of the American Human Association in Denver and University of Hawaii-Hilo sociology associate professor Marilyn Brown.

Lengyel and Brown figure that the net cost to the state for the 197 drug offenders’ total prison terms upon their release in 2006 had come to $15.6 million. “The cost of incarcerating drug offenders greatly exceeds the corresponding social benefit,” they concluded.

Many states now recognize that an expenditure is better focused on substance abuse programs than on lengthy imprisonment. The National Council of Sate Legislatures has concluded that sentences should reflect “the harm caused, the effects on the victim and the community and the rehabilitative needs of the offender.” Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses don’t do that and should be eliminated, in favor of judicial discretion and refining justice

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