American Bar Association Testifies That U.S. Mandatory Minimums Raise Serious Human Rights Concerns

Judge Patricia Wald Speaks to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Mar 02, 2006, 00:00 ET from American Bar Association

    WASHINGTON, March 2 /PRNewswire/ -- Saying that mandatory minimums are a
 "one-way ratchet upwards" and cannot "satisfy the basic dictates of fairness,"
 Judge Patricia Wald, testifying on behalf of the American Bar Association,
 raised a host of concerns about such sentencing practices in testimony before
 an Organization of American States Commission that is examining the issue.
     "There is no question that crimes must be punished and that prison serves
 a legitimate...purpose, but only if it is proportionate," said Wald, adding
 "unduly long and punitive sentences are counter-productive, and candidly many
 of our mandatory minimums approach the cruel and unusual level as compared to
 other countries as well as to our own past practices."
     Wald noted that mandatory minimums lead to an array of problems,
     * "Arbitrary" sentences that focus on "offense characteristics" instead of
       the offender and the actual crime.
     * "Disparities that determinate sentencing was intended to eliminate"
       because so much of the sentencing is now determined by charging
       decisions, or by a form of drug involved in a crime.
     * "Unchecked power" by prosecutors that Wald says, "dangerously disturbs
       the balance between the parties in an adversarial system, and deprives
       defendants of access to an impartial decisionmaker in the all-important
       area of sentencing."
     Wald tied congressional moves to force mandatory minimums to a range of
 policy decisions that, "in the aggregate, produced a steady, dramatic and
 unprecedented increase in the population of the nation's prisons and jails,"
 despite a decrease in the number of serious crimes committed in the past
 several years."
     And she noted that this rise had led to many other consequences, including
 an increase in women in prison. "A person with sympathetic mitigating factors
 based on background, family status or community ties would receive the same
 punishment as a hardened criminal," Wald explained.
     The ABA has long opposed mandatory minimum sentencing. Following a 2003
 speech to the ABA in which U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony
 Kennedy called mandatory minimums "unwise or unjust," the ABA established a
 commission to investigate the state of sentencing and corrections in the
 United States and adopted additional policy designed to serve as a blueprint
 for reform.
     Wald, retired chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the
 District of Columbia Circuit and former judge at the International Criminal
 Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, concluded by saying that she was "saddened
 to see that the sentences imposed on war crimes perpetrators responsible for
 the deaths and suffering of hundreds of innocent civilians often did not come
 near those imposed in my own country for dealing in a few bags of illegal
     With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the
 largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world.  As the
 national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the
 administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in
 their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and
 works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the
 rule of law in a democratic society.

SOURCE American Bar Association