3rd Jun 2015

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,” enhancement (quoting a statute) 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.

There has been conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in select federal districts with the 851 threat commonly looming for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words, the 851 is the ultimate lever used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it is many times utilized: Defendants are unfairly compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse…. I’m not aware of an entity that tracks the threat or use of the 851 in drug cases however it’s no secret that there is a highly coercive use.

Data also indicate that mandatory minimums and enhancements like the 851 have been disproportionately used against black defendants. While research shows that illicit drug use and distribution is generally proportionate to the racial makeup of the nation’s population, people of color  are overrepresented as drug defendants in federal courts, constituting 30 percent of all those sentenced for drug crimes, and a full two-thirds of those who receive life sentences.

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.

Some effort has been made to address the overzealous use of the 851 threat. In 2014, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed prosecutors to refrain from using the 851 as a threat or inducement in plea negotiations. But while his directive has clearly changed behavior in some districts, the 851 threat remains alive in others.

As we grapple with the consequences of a three-decade-long law-and-order binge that has disproportionately affected black communities, we must repair the damage done in the past and prevent a repeat in the future. That means revisiting the unconscionably long sentences that keep Brandon and others behind bars for most or all of their lives, and it means removing hammers like the 851 from the prosecutors’ toolbox to prevent their future abuse.

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