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Continued: Judges to get more leeway in drug cases

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 11, 2014 - 6:13 AM

However, Roe cited the May 1 sentencing of Travis Sentell Peeler, who was charged, along with seven others, with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and crack. He faced a 20-year sentence because a prosecutor submitted a document stating he was a repeat offender. That would double the 10-year minimum.

Roe said Peeler was accused of delivering drugs and had a very limited role, so with the encouragement of public defender Manny Atwal, the prosecutor withdrew the document, thereby reducing the minimum sentence to 10 years. That is the sentence Peeler received from Judge Richard Kyle.

“I don’t think it could have happened before the [Holder] memorandum,” said defense lawyer Dan Scott, who represented another client in the case.

Luger said that the new approach reminded him of his days as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, prosecuting people who had swallowed condoms filled with heroin or cocaine to get past customs inspectors. Often those defendants had no criminal records, yet they got five- and 10-year prison sentences, he said.

“I wondered at the time if that was the right approach,” he said.

“No one was condoning what they did,” he said. However, he added, “None of them had firearms, and no one had [criminal] records.”

Mandatory minimum sentences are being widely debated. Michael Ponsor, a senior U.S. district judge, wrote an article in February in the Wall Street Journal, lamenting the long prison terms he was required to give low-level drug couriers.

“Today we imprison more of our people than any country in the world,” he wrote. “The U.S. now houses 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners.”

In January, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Minnesota Democrats, joined a bipartisan group on the Senate Judiciary Committee whose members voted 13-5 to cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for some drug offenses.

Klobuchar, along with two other senators, voted to report the bill out of committee but said they’d like to work with law enforcement on changes to the proposal before it goes to the full Senate, said a spokesperson for Klobuchar.

Luger disclosed last week that the Justice Department has picked five federal jurisdictions, including Minnesota, to set up re-entry training programs for federal prisoners.

“The probation office, the U.S. attorney, the federal defenders and judges will work together to develop a federal re-entry program in Minnesota,” Luger said. The aim is to reduce recidivism by helping released prisoners with housing, jobs and other support.

 

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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