North Carolina’s Task Force on Sentencing Reforms for Opioid Drug Convictions meets to discuss mandatory minimums. Director of Federal Legislative Affairs Daniel Landsman overviewed the success of removing mandatory minimums across states in the southeast, especially for low-level drug offenses that incarcerate those struggling with addiction.
On August 7th, the North Carolina Task Force on Sentencing Reforms for Opioid Drug Convictions met to discuss the effectiveness of enforcing mandatory minimums without judicial discretion for the offenses of drug trafficking and possession. The task force hosted several speakers, including staff from the Department of Justice Attorney General’s office and the DOJ Crime Bureau, FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) and mental health professionals from Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA: https://www.trosainc.org/).
District Attorney Ernie Lee stated, “I am a fan of mandatory minimums with judicial discretion. Same for first offenders.” Mandatory minimums are a sentence for drug convictions based on the drug type and weight. The core issue of mandatory minimums is that they lack the due process of having any judicial disposition, which takes away an individual’s constitutional right to be treated fairly in the criminal justice system. Without any circumstantial consideration such as the offender’s criminal history, mental health status, their role or motive in the crime, and factors such as age, mandatory minimums end up “catching more minnows than sharks” as Director Landsman expressed during his presentation.
Studies show that crime actually goes down when mandatory minimums have been repealed in other states.
Lack of judicial expertise in these individual cases gives nearly all power to the prosecutor to convict. Prosecutors from North Carolina’s Department of Justice weighed in on this conservation by arguing in favor of mandatory minimums without the role of judge.
Director Landsman noted in his presentation, “Mandatory minimums actually undermine uniformity and consistency.” The DOJ Crime Lab weighs pills to determine what sentence is appropriate for drug offenses, but not all pills contain the full weight of illegal substance in them. DOJ Forensic Scientist Manager and former prosecutor Katy Schell (https://www.ncdoj.gov/About-DOJ/Crime-Lab/Contact-the-Crime-Lab.aspx) argues that separating out each pill to weigh its illegal substance would be a waste of money. She also disregarded the commonly reported cases where users are simply selling drugs to afford their own habit. When asked about the likelihood of a low-level dealer being an addict just trying to make money, Schell said, “(Drug) Users don’t normally have the discretion to ration them [drugs] out.” In other words, those struggling with addiction do not have the self-control to sell on the side.
However, the overall mood of the task force did seem to be moving in a positive direction. While removing mandatory minimums entirely seems like a slow-moving change, most members are open to the Justice Safety Valve Act model presented by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) https://www.alec.org/model-policy/justice-safety-valve-act/. The Safety Valve bill would allow judges to entirely remove or uphold mandatory minimums on a case-by-case basis. This is one of North Carolina’s first steps towards creating a safer pubic and more fair, efficient criminal justice system.
The task force is set to meet again in November of 2018.
Census Bureau,” July 1, 2017 https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/ny/PST045217
New York Prison Population Decrease – “Department of Corrections and Community Supervision,” New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, July 1, 2018. http://www.doccs.ny.gov/FactSheets/PDF/currentfactsheet.pdf
Michigan crime decrease – “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics,” Federal Bureau of Investigations. https://www.ucrdatatool.gov/Search/Crime/State/RunCrimeTrendsInOneVar.cfm
Virginia crime decrease – “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics,” Federal Bureau of Investigations. https://www.ucrdatatool.gov/Search/Crime/State/StatebyState.cfm
South Carolina crime decrease – “National Imprisonment and Crime Rates Continue to Fall” Pew Charitable Trusts. December 2016. http://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2017/03/pspp_national_imprisonment_and_crime_rates_fall.pdf
South Carolina prison closures and savings – “Data Trends: South Carolina Criminal Justice Reform” Pew Charitable Trusts. September 2017. http://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/data-visualizations/infographics/2017/data-trends-south-carolina-criminal-justice-reform.pdf
Louisiana prison population and savings – Toohey, Grace “Louisiana sees large drops in prison population a year after historic criminal justice reforms,” The Advocate. June 28, 2018. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/crime_police/article_a5c01e10-7ad9-11e8-856e-ebf326bf26bc.html
Task Force on Sentencing Reforms for Opioid Drug Convictions Committee Link: https://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/DocumentSites/browseDocSite.asp?nID=382&sFolderName=\August%207,%202018