Should Congress Be Concerned With Drug Labs? (7/16/97) 
U.S Representative Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) proposed on WBAP's Mark Davis show recently that  Congress enact a law that would make if a federal crime punishable by life imprisonment without parole if a person is convicted of operating a methamphetamine lab.

Let me go on record as saying that such a proposal is a bad idea.

Before the lynch mob gathers at my door, however, please let me explain.

Methamphetamine (aka "speed") is apparently growing in popularity. Even our local sheriff issued a press release recently warning that some impromptu
labs are producing "bad" dope which has side effects that even
those willing to ingest the narcotic would not knowingly subject themselves to.

First, let's keep the concept of a "drug lab" in perspective. I have observed what it takes to operate these labs, and I am, in a word, "underwhelmed". Some of the critical ingredients involve non-prescription antihistamine and household batteries. It is not high tech. Yes, the labs produce dangerous drugs, but it is not the equivalent of a Colombian drug lord network.

And although the crime of methamphetamine manufacturing is already
punishable in Texas by life imprisonment (meaning 30 real years),
Sessions apparently believes that this is insufficient.  Note that he
wants the crime to be federal in nature thereby placing it in the
federal courts and out of the hands of your local district court
and district attorney.

But the fact that he wants a mandatory life sentence is also
troubling. He believes, it would seem, that a Texas jury, armed
with all the facts and circumstances, is not capable of assessing
an appropriate punishment in such cases. (In Texas, the law that allows a jury to assess punishment if the defendant does not wish to take his chances with the trial judge. This is normally the route a defendant chooses.)

At first blush, it is hard to argue with his position that drug
dealing deserve life imprisonment.  But if a drug lab is worth life
in prison, so isn't child molesting, armed robbery, or murder?
Well, in some circumstances, yes. In others, no.

It is the nondiscretionary sentence of "automatic" life that I find

As an example, a jury in Fort Worth last week sentenced a man to 16
years in prison for the sexual assault of a teenage boy.  The point
being that the jury felt that was the appropriate sentence after
hearing all the facts about the crime and the circumstances
surrounding the defendant. Sixteen years, in the jury's opinion,
was enough.

I'm certainly not going to argue with them. And if 12 folks believe
that 16 years was enough in that case, it would be wrong in my opinion for the government to change the law to take away the jury's discretion in such case and impose mandatory life sentence. Who do you want imposing
sentences anyway? Your neighbors or your congressmen?

With sixteen years being an appropriate sentence in at least one
case involving a child molester, I would bet that at least one jury in the future will find that an equivalent amount of time is the just sentence for a person convicted of operating a drug lab. Every case is different. Some factual scenarios have mitigating circumstances, others do not.

Of course, a life sentence may be appropriate in some circumstances when a drug lab is involved. If a jury of twelve citizens, who have heard all the evidence, wish to impose that sentence, then so be it. I just feel more
comfortable with that decision being reached by twelve Wise County
residents instead of a federal judge who has no discretion because Congress told him "they know better".

Promoting mandatory life sentence for those who operate drug labs will get you a headline. However, doesn't it make more sense to keep a life sentence as a sentencing option while giving the jury lesser alternatives if they feel it is the just and right thing to do? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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