On Friday, the D.C. District Court handed down its decision in the case against John Perrone and former Georgetown student Charles Smith, who were accused of manufacturing the hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine in Smith’s Harbin dorm room. The penalty for producing DMT, a Schedule I controlled substance, can be up to $1 million in fines and 20 years in federal prison. Thankfully, the defendants each received three years probation in a plea-bargain agreement with prosecutors—but that is a far cry from the sentence an average defendant would receive.
Smith and Perrone’s sentences were appropriate if you consider their actions youthful mistakes. However, their relatively light punishment, when compared with the sentences that most defendants receive reveals the great level of judicial disparity in a country that claims “equal justice under law.” Had the defendants belonged to a different socioeconomic class, they probably would have received time in prison, not a mere three years probation.
In this case, the defendants retained two well-known private attorneys. Smith’s attorney, David Schertler, was just involved in the high-profile acquittal of the defendants in the Robert Wone murder case. Perrone’s attorney, G. Allen Dale (LAW ’77), has a lengthy portfolio of defense work ranging from corporate fraud to espionage. Few defendants can afford this caliber of representation. A 2005 study by a Colorado state judge and two Emory professors showed that defendants that resort to public defenders, on average, spend five more years in prison than those with private attorneys.
The root of the problem is that injustice pervades the sentencing system. Sentences should be based on the severity of the crime, not the skill and price tag of the attorney. Some drug crimes unnecessarily carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Five grams of crack receives a five-year mandatory federal prison sentence, while an offender must sell 500 grams of powder cocaine, for example, to receive the same sentence. These mandatory minimums may be politically popular, but they corrupt the justice system, leading to inordinately severe sentences in many cases. Such minimums have been shown to target African Americans, who comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users yet make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted. In 1986, before this mandatory minimum was enacted, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the gap was 49 percent—a needless increase.
It’s troubling that race and social class are such large factors in our purportedly fair justice system. Although it does not address the basic problems of sentencing, encouragingly, Attorney General Eric Holder promised one year ago to strengthen the public defender system. He must keep this promise, and in addition, mandatory minimum sentencing must be scrapped. Smith and Perrone both had good chances at a fair verdict— a chance that every defendant deserves.