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Prosecutors Questioning Wisdom, Justice of Mandatory Minimums


January 1993

More prosecutors and judges, as well as defense attorneys, are questioning the wisdom and justice of mandatory minimums, according to a recent series in the Milwaukee Journal (All stories by Mike Nichols in the Milwaukee Journal; "Sentencing Laws Blur Lines of Justice: Many Now Question Tough Federal Reforms;" "Small Role in Drug Deal Leads to Big Prison Term," 12/27/92, p. 1; "Paper Trap Snares Scholar-Deadhead: Quirk in Sentencing Guidelines Counts Blotter Paper as if it Were LSD," 12/29/92, p. 1; "Sentencing Guide Ignores Severity of Past Crimes, 12/29/92, p. 8).

In discussing the drug provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Milwaukee Journal reporter Mike Nichols quotes Federal Judge J.P. Stadtmueller, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson, and Chief Federal Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin Terence Evans as critical in varying degrees of federally imposed mandatory minimum sentences.

Chief Judge Evans, for example, said that although federal minimums may have been successful in putting a number of guilty people away for longer periods "it is a lot like dropping a bomb on a military installation. You might do severe damage to the enemy. But if you are also killing thousands of civilians who live in close proximity, maybe you should re-evaluate what you are doing."

District Court Judge Stadtmueller commented: "Frankly, I don't think they are doing any good. All we are doing is warehousing people for a long period of time. I don't think there is any deterrence coming out of the courts in Milwaukee. The community continues to be ravaged."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Johnson noted: "I consider it significant if almost everybody in the federal justice system thinks [the sentencing laws] are a bad idea. That has to tell you something."

The articles detail the case of Artemio Ramirez, an incidental participant in a cocaine deal, who received a sentence of 10 years without parole for his role, and Walter Atri, who was sentenced to almost 13 years for his role in selling 3.3 grams of LSD.

In the Ramirez case, the principal in the transaction bartered information for a reduced sentence. Such disparities routinely occur under mandatory sentencing, where the only possibility of a reduced sentence involves cooperating with authorities by providing information of substantial assistance in the prosecution of others -- information rarely available to low level and incidental participants in drug transactions.

In the Atri case, Atri received his lengthy sentence mainly on the weight of the blotter paper on which the LSD was contained. In rendering the sentence, Judge Stadtmueller commented that it was "rather appalling, to put it mildly, that this matter has not been thoroughly addressed both in Congress and by the Sentencing Commission." But he noted that under the existing law, he had no choice in the sentence he meted out to Atri, a 22-year-old fan of the Grateful Dead. Atri will remain in prison until at least September 2000 if granted days off for good behavior. There is no parole under federal sentencing.

In May 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court required inclusion of the weight of the carrier medium in determining sentencing for drug offenses carrying mandatory minimums, Chapman v. U.S., 111 S.Ct. 1919 (1991).