Fairness and flexibility are the keys to ensure equal justice for everyone, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen Jr. today said in a speech at the University of the District of Columbia.
Machen spoke at the David A. Clarke School of Law spring symposium about past and present drug policies.
“We must have laws that are predictable, fair and do not create unwarranted racial disparities,” Machen said.
The Fair Sentencing Act was a step in the right direction to eliminate racial disparities in crack cocaine sentencing in particular, Machen said. Anti-drugs laws passed in 1986 and 1988 created an “unwarranted disparity in the laws applying to crack cocaine and powder,” he said. Machen cited a study that showed that, in 2006, 82% of individuals convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses were black and 9% were white. That same year, federal powder cocaine offenders were 14% white and 27% black.
Treatment and drug courts should also be considered as alternatives to prison, Machen said. He said the success of The Superior Court Drug Intervention Program, which includes supervision, drug testing, treatment services and immediate sanctions and incentives for offenders, proves that prison isn’t the best solution for all offenders.
“Public safety will require incarceration at times. If you commit an act of violence against another person, even if you have a drug addiction, there needs to be accountability. Actions have to have consequences. You have to have a system that makes people accountable. But for all of our successes in law enforcement – and we’ve had many over the last few years – we all know that incarceration alone cannot be the answer. We know that we can’t arrest enough people or build enough prisons to solve this problem,” Machen said.
Prosecutors should be given more flexibility when making decisions about charging and sentencing, Machen said. He said his office has embraced a principle Attorney General Eric Holder asserted to U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country.
“Attorney General Holder explained that the reasoned exercise of prosecutorial discretion is essential to the fair, effective, even-handed administration of federal criminal laws. I share the Attorney General’s view. Equal justice demands individualized justice at every stage of the process,” Machen said.
He added that close monitoring and consistent training will help prevent prosecutors from allowing prejudices or biases to influence their decision making.
“Despite the risks, I believe that a healthy dose of prosecutorial discretion is essential to the fair operation of the criminal justice system. We simply cannot write rules that are complicated or nuanced enough to address the infinite variety of facts and circumstances presented by each defendant in each criminal case. The traditional criminal justice model is not enough. We must be innovative and aggressive in creating prevention strategies to address our needs,” Machen said.