Mandatory minimum drug laws require federal judges to impose life sentences in nonviolent drug cases – even when the judge believes a life sentence is too harsh. Many judges – powerless from the bench – have spoken out against life sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

America’s Three Strikes Drug Law handcuffs judges

America’s mandatory drug laws handcuff judges

United States District Court for the District of Nebraska

Judge Lyle E. Strom

Judge Lyle E. Strom

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
“It’s difficult to sentence a man to life imprisonment, particularly a young man. I think in some respects the sentences get to be very, very severe. . . Congress has spoken on this, and I feel that under the oath of office I took it is my duty to uphold the laws of the United States as lawfully passed by Congress. The fact that I disagree with the scope of [the distinction between crack and powder cocaine], and the impact that that distinction has had on sentencing of defendants as it has been used by the sentencing commission, is not something I can totally adjust myself to.”
United States v. Christopher Scott, 97cr014 (D. Ne)
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee

Judge Thomas W. Phillips (Sr.)

Judge Thomas W. Phillips (Sr.)

President George W. Bush (R) Appointee
“This Court has no discretion but to provide that the mandatory minimum be enforced in this case.”
United States v. Toby Senter, 3:07-cr-42 (E.D. TN)
United States District Judge for the Eastern District of New York

Judge John Gleeson (Ret.)

Judge John Gleeson (Ret.)

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“Because there is no judicial check on the enhanced mandatory minimums prosecutors can inject into a case, they can put enormous pressure on defendants to plead guilty.” “There is plenty of documentary evidence that the use of prior felony informations to coerce pleas and inflict trial penalties is widespread, in this district and elsewhere. It shows that there are different ways to use them as sledgehammers.”
U.S. v. Lulzim Kupa, 976 F. Supp. 2d 417, 427 (E.D.N.Y. 2013)
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia

Judge James R. Spencer (Ret.)

Judge James R. Spencer (Ret.)

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
The defendant's life sentence for drugs is “ridiculous. It is a travesty. I don't have any discretion about it. The government, obviously you irritated them in some way . . . I don't agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly. But as I say, I don't have any choice. It is the judgment of the Court that the defendant [ ] is hereby committed to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to be imprisoned for a term of life.”
United States v. Tony Gregg, 09cr180 (E.D. Va)
United States District Court for the Central District of California

Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian Jr.

Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian Jr.

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
Defendant’s 3 Strikes life sentence is “disasterous” and “I must follow the law and Congress has set up the sentencing Commission to eliminate trial judges from exercising [ ] their discretion.”
United States v. Ira Spearman, 93cr1027 (C.D. Ca)
United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois

Judge Wayne Anderson (Ret.)

Judge Wayne Anderson (Ret.)

President H W Bush (R) Appointee
“Under the law, I don’t think I have any discretion but to sentence Troy Lawrence to life in prison. I find this to be a profoundly sad thing. . . In my gut, in my heart, the—the decision in my mind was, ‘Should Troy Lawrence be sentenced to life or should he receive some lesser sentence?’ . . . But the debate in my mind as a trial judge had to end when I . . . realized that the [3 Strikes Law] didn’t give me any choice.”
United States v. Troy Lawrence, 02cr200-1 (N.D. Il)
United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

Judge Marvin Aspen (Sr.)

Judge Marvin Aspen (Sr.)

President Jimmy Carter (D) Appointee
“The sad thing, I think, for all of us to reflect upon, was that the [mandatory minimums] were sold to the public and to law enforcement and to the courts on the notion that disparity in sentencing would disappear and that there would be honesty in sentencing, in that everyone involved in a particular criminal activity would be punished proportionally with other people involved in that activity. And I think we can see by this case how farcical that notion is . . . in its application at times.”
United States v. Alton Mills, 93cr350 (N.D. IL)
United States District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa

Judge Mark Bennett (Ret.)

Judge Mark Bennett (Ret.)

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“This case presents a deeply disturbing, yet often replayed, shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application by the Department of Justice (DOJ) of § 851 drug sentencing enhancements.” Prosecutor's 3 Strikes decisions “are shrouded in such complete secrecy that they make the proceedings of the former English Court of Star Chamber appear to be a model of criminal justice transparency.”
United States v. Douglas Young, 12cr4107 (N.D. IA)
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Judge Gerald A. McHugh

Judge Gerald A. McHugh

President Barak Obama (D) Appointee
“There remains cause for concern about how [3 Strikes] enhancements are employed across the federal system, even within a given state. . . . The disparities between the outcomes for these co-defendants are self-evident, as is the enormous leverage the prosecution has in determining the individual fate of any given defendant.”
United States v. Clifton McLean, 199 F. Supp. 3d 926, 940–41 (E.D. Pa. 2016)
United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois

Judge Michael McCuskey (Ret.)

Judge Michael McCuskey (Ret.)

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“Unfortunately, I cannot extend leniency to your son, Edward. The law does not allow me to grant a sentence less than natural life in prison when someone is convicted for the third time in a drug case. This is known as the three-strike law and was enacted by Congress over 20 years ago. Its purpose is to prevent judges from granting leniency to three time offenders in drug cases.”
United States v. Edward Douglas, 02cr20040 (C.D. Il)
United States District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee

Judge Kevin Sharp (Ret.)

Judge Kevin Sharp (Ret.)

President Barack Obama (D) Appointee
“If there was any way I could have not given him life in prison I would have done it... What they did was wrong, they deserved some time in prison, but not life.”
United States v. Chris Young, 11cr12 (M.D. TN)
Chief United States District Judge for the District of Massachusetts

Judge Patti B. Saris

Judge Patti B. Saris

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“I used to be a state court judge, and I've imposed a life sentence six times, and it was for a murder each time. I've never imposed before a life sentence for a drug offense.... I worry that this is an unjust sentence. Life is what happens when you murder someone.”
United States v. Doutre, 08–CR–10215 (D. Ma)
United States District Judge for the Southern District of Iowa

Judge Robert W. Pratt

Judge Robert W. Pratt

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“Mr. Ledezma Rodriguez was a non-violent, low-level offender" and "there is no justice in the mandatory sentence Defendant received... In the interest of justice—an interest necessarily shared by the Government, Defendant, and this Court—it would be a most laudable course for the U.S. Attorney to consider taking any available steps toward the remedy of the inauspicious and undeserving fate that has befallen this Defendant.”
United States v. Juan Ledezma–Rodriguez, 00cr71 (S.D. IA)
United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri

Judge Audrey G. Fleissig

Judge Audrey G. Fleissig

President Barack Obama (D) Appointee
“I have troubled over this case for quite some time. It is difficult to impose a sentence of life with respect to an individual as young as you. It is difficult to impose a sentence of life with respect to somebody who is impacted by substance abuse, somebody who has developed an addiction. It is difficult to impose a sentence of life with respect to an individual who was a model prisoner on probation and showed the ability to conquer his substance abuse for a lengthy period—for a number of years. It is very difficult. Were I a member of Congress I would not vote to impose this mandatory minimum sentence. It is not the judgment that I would make. I don't think that a mandatory minimum sentence of life here makes a whole lot of sense.... I think it is an unwise judgment on Congress' part.”
United States v. Dennis Ray Capps, 11cr108 (E.D. Mo)
United States District Judge for the Western District of Missouri

Judge Howard F. Sachs

Judge Howard F. Sachs

President Jimmy Carter (D) Appointee
Judge Sachs noted that bank robbers with much more serious records generally served less than ten years in prison, and that the consequences of the 3 Strikes Drug Law were “troubl[ing]” and were likely not “fully understood or intended by Congress.”
United States v. Kenneth Harvey, 90cr0006
United States District Judge for the District of Rhode Island

Judge Mary Lisi (Sr.)

Judge Mary Lisi (Sr.)

President William Clinton (D) Appointee
“This is not my sentence. This is the sentence of Congress. This was a sentence that was decided before you committed the offense. . . . The sentence that I've had to impose here today I have had to impose because I swore an oath to uphold the law, and I swore that oath to uphold the law whether I agree with the law or not.”
United States v. Joel Fancisco, 04cr100 (D. RI)
United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

Judge Walter S. Smith (Ret.)

Judge Walter S. Smith (Ret.)

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
“If it were not for that provision of the law that requires a life sentence, I would not sentence you to life in this case. If I were able to sentence you within the Guideline range, I would sentence you to the lower end of the Guideline range, because while your offense is viewed serious by society, there are much more serious offenders that receive much less sentence than a life sentence, and I think it is not an expression of true justice for you to be sentenced to life in this case, but I have no choice.”
United States v. Gregory Liningham, 93-cr-00083 (W. D. Tx)
United States District Court for the District of Connecticut

Judge Alan H. Nevas (Ret.)

Judge Alan H. Nevas (Ret.)

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
“The Court takes no pleasure in sentencing a 25-year-old young man to life in jail. I don't relish that option. I don't like it. I'm not happy with it, but I have no choice.”
United States v. Kenneth Richardson, 99cr264 (D. CT)
United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Judge William G. Young

Judge William G. Young

President Ronald Reagan (R) Appointee
“The Department is so addicted to plea bargaining to leverage its law enforcement resources to an overwhelming conviction rate that the focus of our entire criminal justice system has shifted far away from trials and juries and adjudication to a massive system of sentence bargaining that is heavily rigged against the accused citizen.”
United States v. Richard Green et al., 346 F. Supp. 2d 259 (D. Ma 2003)
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