Can the Obama Admin Actually Fix Our Broken Criminal Justice System?

  On Monday, August 12, the day Attorney General Eric Holder announced “a fundamentally new approach” to the criminal justice system in his speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco, US District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett was in his office in Sioux City, Iowa, drafting a sentencing opinion in a drug case. An outspoken critic of mandatory minimums [see “ Imposing Injustice,” November 12, 2012], Bennett is known for writing unusual opinions that criticize the sentences he must often hand down. “It’s about trying to make the system fairer,” he says, “not just for the defendant in front of you, but for others.”

The defendant in this case, a 37-year-old black man named Douglas Young, had caught a rare break. He’d pleaded guilty to two charges involving twenty-eight grams of crack cocaine—an amount sufficient to trigger two five-year mandatory minimum sentences. But he had previously been convicted on another crack charge, in Chicago, when he was just 20 years old. This single offense, seventeen years ago, meant not only that prosecutors could have doubled Young’s mandatory minimum sentence, but also that he could have received a maximum sentence of life without parole.

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