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US judge blasts DOJ over drug sentence disparities

IOWA CITY — A federal judge in Iowa has sharply criticized the US Department of Justice for creating massive drug sentencing disparities by failing to have a policy, until recently, advising prosecutors on when to double the prison time for repeat offenders.

In an Aug. 16 opinion drawing attention in legal circles, US District Judge Mark Bennett described a “disturbing, yet often replayed, shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application’’ of sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders.

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Bennett issued the decision days after Attorney General Eric Holder announced guidelines telling prosecutors to not routinely seek the tougher penalties against low-level drug offenders. The change, which Bennett called welcome if long overdue, is part of a major shift in federal sentencing policies designed to imprison fewer nonviolent offenders.

Before then, prosecutors had little direction on when to bring charges with enhancements, which double the mandatory minimum sentences for offenders with prior felonies and make some eligible for life sentences, Bennett said.

Bennett, a Clinton appointee, said he could discern no pattern for how prosecutors applied the enhancements in his Sioux City courtroom over the last 20 years. Bennett obtained and analyzed the only data known to exist on the issue from the US Sentencing Commission, which he said revealed a “jaw-dropping, shocking disparity” in how enhancements are applied across the nation’s 94 US Attorney’s offices.

The data covers 14,000 cases nationally from 2006, 2008, and 2009. Bennett’s analysis revealed that prosecutors in both of Iowa’s districts sought enhancements in four out of five cases in which an offender was eligible, among the highest rates in the nation. But prosecutors in eight other districts never sought enhancements and many others rarely did.

A repeat offender caught in Bennett’s district was 2,532 times more likely to face a doubled sentence than one arrested a mile away across the Nebraska border, he wrote. Those prosecuted in the eastern district of Tennessee were nearly 4,000 times more likely to receive an enhancement than those caught in the state’s western district, he added.

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