The Nation’s Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums
No one embodies the emerging consensus on the excessive cruelty of mandatory drug sentencing quite like Mark Osler. He’s currently a law professor, but back in the Nineties he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting crack cocaine cases in his native Detroit. Tough punishment was routine: Five years for crack rocks the weight of two sugar cubes. Five more if the defendant happened to have a gun tucked in his belt. Sometimes, Osler could close out a case in the span of a morning. “I thought crack was harming the social fabric,” he says, “and strict sentences would deter people.”
Law enforcement efforts concentrated in Detroit’s urban neighborhoods, and of the dozens of drug defendants he put behind bars, the majority were young men who were poor and black. A public defender named Andrew Densemo represented many of them, and at sentencing the judge would ask, “Will you be making your futile speech?” Densemo would invariably say, “Yes,” then he’d stand and speak at length about the groundless 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the crippling consequences for first-time offenders, and the failure of the laws to actually stamp out trafficking. When he finished, Osler would remind the court that the sentence was mandatory, and the judge would have no choice but to send the defendant to prison.
But one afternoon in 1997, Densemo’s speech finally got to Osler. “In the gospels,” he explains, “We have Jesus walking up to a legal execution, saying, ‘You who are without sin cast the first stone,’ challenging the moral right of the crowd to stone the adulteress. I remember thinking, ‘I’m the guy with the rock.’”
Osler left the U.S. attorney’s office, and he’s spent the past decade fighting unforgiving drug sentencing though litigation and advocacy.