The Washington Post dissects a federal drug case in Oregon to show how heavily prosecutors rely on mandatory minimum sentences to take down drug networks. This leverage could be diminished by Congress because of concerns that it has been used too liberally to lock up low-level nonviolent offenders who face punishments that are much more severe than their crimes. Defense attorneys and others pushing to reduce mandatory sentences say that the threat of decades in prison leaves defendants without a choice at the plea bargaining table. Advocates for sentencing reform have also said that judges should have the flexibility to match prison sentences better with the threat defendants pose to public safety. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has expressed the Obama administration's support for legislation to reduce some mandatory penalties and said prosecutors and investigators could still effectively do their jobs without such sentences.
Some prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are lobbying against the changes, saying the legislation will make it harder for them to dismantle criminal organizations or uncover other crimes, including homicides. “The leverage, the hammer we have comes in those penalties,” said federal prosecutor Steven Cook, who is part of a group of law enforcement officials who oppose the sentencing reform legislation. “It is the one and only tool we have on the other side.” Prosecutors believe those who supply dangerous drugs like heroin are in essence doing violence against people, wrecking families and communities, and deserve harsh sentences. The defendant who supplied heroin in the case examined by the Post was given a prison sentence of 17 years and 6 months.