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Congresswoman Waters Commends DOJ, Urges Passage of Mandatory Minimums Legislation

August 12, 2013
Press Release

"I am very pleased with Attorney General Holder's announcement today that federal prosecutors will no longer pursue draconian mandatory minimum prison sentences in cases involving low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale gangs and cartels.  The Justice Department's policy shift largely adopts core components of legislation that I've introduced consistently for nearly 15 years – the Major Drug Traffickers Prosecution Act – and is the culmination of the tireless efforts among reform advocates who have spent many years in the courts, Congress, and town halls across the country raising awareness about the impact of crack-cocaine and harsh sentencing policies on African American and Latino communities. I remain hopeful that along with today's announcement, and the emerging bipartisan consensus on over-criminalization, we will have the support we need in Congress to remove these failed sentencing policies from the federal code.

"In the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and at the height of the public outcry over crack-cocaine following the tragic death of college basketball star Len Bias, Congress acted hastily, without sufficient hearings or research, and enacted hard line anti-drug penalties that targeted low-level drug offenders. These statutes included new, long mandatory minimum sentences for such offenders. Twenty-seven years later, mandatory drug sentences have broken communities and destroyed lives. The result has been the incarceration of thousands of low level drug offenders – most of whom are minorities – and an exponential boom in the Federal prison population.  According to U.S. Sentencing Commission figures, no class of drug is as racially skewed as crack in terms of numbers of offenses. According to the Sentencing Commission, 79 percent of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were African American, versus 10 percent who were Caucasian and 10 percent who were Hispanic.

"According to the Bureau of Prisons, when the 1986 drug law containing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences passed, the prison population was 36,000. Today, the federal prison population is over 215,000 prisoners, an increase of nearly 800 percent in 28 years. It costs taxpayers approximately $26,000 to keep one prisoner in federal prison for one year.

"For this reason, I have worked over the last 20 years to raise awareness and traveled across the country to educate communities about cocaine sentencing disparities and mandatory minimums.  I have also hosted many workshops on the subject during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference.  On many occasions, I have partnered with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the Open Society Institute, Drug Policy Alliance, and the Sentencing Project during these forums. I have also worked alongside courageous advocates such as Professor Charles Ogletree and Kemba Smith, who was sentenced to serve a mandatory minimum before she was commuted under the Clinton Administration. I have also consistently introduced legislation in Congress that would reverse the effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences. 

"This Congress, I plan to re-introduce the Major Drug Traffickers Prosecution Act of 2013. This bill is similar to previous legislation that I have introduced since 1999, and it would codify into law the policy that Attorney General Holder announced today so that no one, regardless of the Administration in office, will again be subject to harsh mandatory minimums. The Major Drug Traffickers Prosecution Act of 2013 will: curb federal prosecutions of low-level and non-violent drug offenders; re-focus scarce federal resources to prosecute major drug kingpins, and give courts and judges greater discretion to place drug users on probation or suspend the sentence entirely. Under this bill, judges will be able to make individualized determinations and take into account a defendant's individual and unique circumstances rather than being held to a stringent sentencing requirement prescribed by Congress.

"I look forward to working with the Administration and my colleagues in Congress as we continue our joint efforts to reform the criminal justice system and focus federal resources on major drug traffickers and their funding streams."