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Sentencing Eddie

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 91 Issue: 3 Dated: Spring 2001 Pages: 547-566
Gerard E. Lynch
Date Published
20 pages
This article discusses the mandatory minimum sentences attached to Federal narcotics violations.
The argument that a given mandatory sentence is excessive is a difficult one to make in any but the most extreme cases. In the case of “Eddie,” the evidence showed that Eddie sold cocaine to a number of steady customers, and bought from the principal defendant, a wholesaler of substantial quantities of the drug. Both the sentencing guidelines and the mandatory minimum statutes make it important to know how much cocaine Eddie was responsible for. The government contended, based on testimony of a violent thug who was promised leniency by the government, Eddie was involved in transactions that involved 500 grams or more of cocaine. Eddie was not a first offender and apparently had a drug problem. He also was a 53-year-old husband and father who had provided for his family, maintained a steady record of employment, and served honorably in the military in Vietnam. But he had only shortly before been convicted of another drug trafficking offense, and had benefited from judicial leniency on that occasion. Eddie seemed a candidate for a serious sentence. The amount of cocaine attributable to Eddie exceeded 500 grams, so he was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years. As a prior narcotics offender, the mandatory minimum was doubled to 10 years. Judged by the guideline standard, the mandatory minimum sentence required in this case was excessive by three and a half years. A comparison of the method by which the guidelines and statutory provision arrive at their results suggests that the guideline approach is fairer. The guidelines’ obsession with the amount of a drug is one of their major vulnerabilities to criticism. The guidelines are viewed as too simplistic, failing to make distinctions that matter, and limiting the flexibility of sentencing judges to respond to relevant differences. To the extent that discretion exists in a system of mandatory sentencing, that discretion is shifted from judges to prosecutors. That the mandatory minimum in Eddie’s case was 10 years, rather than 20, was solely due to a tactical trial decision by the prosecutor. 44 footnotes