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Efforts Increase to Reduce Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Photo: Lisa's son, Robert Farmer, serving a mandatory sentence for second-degree murder. Courtesy: Lisa
Photo: Lisa's son, Robert Farmer, serving a mandatory sentence for second-degree murder. Courtesy: Lisa
September 9, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C. - There is renewed interest in North Carolina and nationwide to reduce mandatory minimum sentences. Recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes in how the Justice Department charges non-violent crimes, to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney Daryl Atkinson with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said mandatory sentences have created a population of inmates who are now caught in the system, without a full appreciation of all the circumstances surrounding their crime.

"It took away all of the discretion from a judge. They really shifted the balance of power in the criminal justice system away from the judiciary, to the prosecution," Atkinson said.

According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world's population, but has almost 25 percent of its prisoners. The U.S. Sentencing Commission said drug offenders account for nearly half of all federal inmates, and this month called for a review of the sentencing guidelines when it comes to drug offenses.

"Lisa," a North Carolina resident who wishes only to be identified by her first name, is the mother of an inmate currently serving a mandatory sentence for second-degree murder. He is in his ninth year of a 35-year sentence for accidentally killing a person. His mom said there is a lot more to his story a judge would have considered, if there had been flexibility in his sentence.

"They have no hope. He can never work below the minimum, I don't care what he does. He's never going below his minimum time."

Atkinson said a majority of mandatory sentences are for non-violent drug crimes. According to the N.C. Department of Corrections, 17 percent of the state's prison population and 20 percent of those on probation were found guilty of a non-violent drug crime.

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC