Trial and Error: Mandatory Minimums and the Prison Population

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERABy Kevin Yolken

As our country’s debt rises like the levees just broke, somewhere amidst government shutdowns and Obamacare bickering you would think the metaphorical Ark might be under construction. Prison populations in the United States have reached unprecedented levels, forcing politicians from Texas to New York to reevaluate the system in search of ways to pinch pennies.  Monetary debt is something we can all understand, but in prison there exists a different kind of debt. Unquantifiable like the billions of dollars spent, the debt to society instead depletes the soul, draining away invaluable years of your life as the world spins on without you.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 (SSA) seeks to reduce and in some cases even eliminate harsh mandatory minimum sentences that are imposed on non-violent criminals with drug charges. Recently endorsed by Attorney General Eric Holder, the sentencing changes would allow federal resources to be concentrated on violent drug traffickers, and provide non-violent criminals with more opportunity for rehabilitation through means other than prison. The sentence length for low level drug charges would be reduced by an average of 11 months, allowing for an estimated reduction of 6,550 federal inmates by next year. Right now more than 3,000 people are serving life without parole for non-violent drug charges, often times from a judge that was opposed to handing down such a harsh punishment, but ultimately had no choice. The reduction in overall prison population and federal spending are two positive outcomes of sentencing reform, but the real necessity is for reasonable punishment and effective treatment of non-violent drug crimes, facilitating repair and a return to society as a productive citizen. Holder says the focus on incarceration is not only financially unsustainable, but “comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

In America, land of the free, we house more prisoners than any other country. The United States has 2.2 million people incarcerated, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Over 215,000 inmates are in federal prisons alone, and nearly half of them are incarcerated on non-violent drug charges. The problem began in the 80’s when drug offenses were given mandatory minimum sentences of 5, 10, and 20 years, initiating the upwards trend of overcrowded prisons. These sentences were designed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to deter criminal activity, to protect the public, and to provide the defendant with correctional treatment. Instead they have caused our prison population to rise 500 percent since 1986 when the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed, and for prisons to account for a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget. Furthermore, after 28 years of trial it is apparent that mandatory minimum sentences are not effective at reducing crime or rehabilitating those convicted, nor are they fair, and the issue must be addressed before thousands more low-level, non-violent criminals are locked up.

Mandatory minimum sentences were supposed to protect the public while deterring and rehabilitating criminals, but evidence doesn’t show reduced recidivism or decreased crime since their implementation. Consistent with previous studies, recidivism rates are shown to be more dependent on the certainty of imprisonment rather than the length of the term. Because of the ever changing legal system, punishments today elicit mandatory sentences that are longer than they were 20 years ago, apply to more criminal conduct, and have increased in frequency. The SSA seeks to reduce these lengthy sentences, and allow for non-violent offenders to enter into programs geared towards rehabilitation. This has been shown to help reduce repeat offenses, particularly for drug users or small time dealers that do so to support their habit. At the same time, the new guidelines ensure that violent criminals and those considered to be career criminals will be subjected to appropriate punishment.

We set out to make people better, but instead we incarcerate them for an unjustifiable amount of time and then leave them with a criminal record that they have to shoulder around for the rest of their lives. Having this criminal record puts them in a position of legal discrimination, and only furthers the chance that they will end up right back in jail. Take the case of Stephanie George as an example. A person involved in small time drug use and dealing, mostly in providing assistance and storage to her boyfriend for extra cash to support her family, George sold crack to an undercover officer. Because of her previous record, and a latter raid on her house due to the suspected dealing of her boyfriend that revealed drugs and money, George was sentenced with mandatory lifetime imprisonment. The judge had no question that George should be punished, but questioned whether the circumstances necessitated the sentence.   “I wish I had another alternative.” He told Stephanie, “Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing for a number of years … your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder. So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn’t warrant a life sentence.”

We say drugs are illegal because they cause you harm, but if we really cared about not harming people how can we keep this recycling system of prisoners going? Our method of handling drug possession arguably causes more damage to the individual and their families than the actual substance itself. What America has done by criminalizing substances has really only served to criminalize the people. When judges are repeatedly forced to hand down sentences that are unjust, proposed changes such as the SSA should be carefully considered as an opportunity to accomplish the true goals of punishment. Highlighting the inappropriate enforcement of mandatory minimums, Weldon Angelos received a 55 year term because of the possession of weapons at his home. Not involved during the actual crime of dealing marijuana, his house was searched and weapons were found, thus eliciting a high minimum sentence. What began as a five year sentence for the drug deal was increased by successive 25 year sentences, one for each weapon found in the home. Judge Cassell reluctantly issued the punishment, calling it “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” Afterwards he took the time to write a 67 page opinion piece to President Bush urging him to reduce the sentence to 18 years or less, pointing out much shorter sentences given to repeat child rapists and airplane hijackers. Another judge said in regards to mandatory minimums, “the people who drew up these guidelines never sat in a court and had to look a defendant in the eye while imposing some of these sentences.”

Mandatory sentences also lack in providing appropriate justice because of the inconsistencies with which they are applied. Specifically, the power of prosecution in mandatory minimum sentencing has a large role in determining when they are actually imposed. Take the following analysis from the Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission as an example of the disparity that exists between 14 districts surveyed. For defendants with a prior felony conviction, the mandatory minimum sentence was eligible to be doubled. Throughout eight of the districts, zero people that were eligible for the increased minimum received it. In the other six districts, 75 percent received the increased penalty. This is the difference between one person being charged with a mandatory 40 year sentence while a different person, committing a crime extremely similar in nature, receives a term that is 20 years shorter. Judge Patti Saris said “When similarly situated offenders receive sentences that differ by years or decades, the criminal justice system is not achieving the principles of fairness and parity that underlie the Sentencing Reform Act.” The SSA would work to further eliminate these large discrepancies in punishment, giving judges instead of prosecutors the opportunity to individually review drug offenses. This will result in more appropriate punishments that “aren’t bound by outdated laws,” says the original cosponsor of the bill Dick Durban.

Doug Burns, now a legal advisor to Fox News and a former federal prosecutor, has proposed that mandatory minimums are an important part of the justice system, and to lessen the punishment for low level offenders will cause an increase in crime rate. His reasoning is that prosecutors maintain the ability to leverage decades in prison against a low level offender in order to scare them into giving up the kingpin. “Mandatory minimums work very well, when you have a drug offender who can provide information…you turn around and charge him with 20 years of mandatory time, and the defense attorney knows the only realistic way out of that is cooperation.” Keeping in place mandatory minimum sentencing as an option in order to use it for leverage is a very dangerous and corrupt way to run our legal system. The results are some offenders getting reduced punishment for providing information, while others will be subjected to overly harsh punishments for unjust reasons. The prosecution should not have such great power in influencing the sentence restrictions of a judge, forcing them to reluctantly hand down excessive punishments. More importantly, locking up more big time criminals should never come at the expense of putting small time offenders in jail for years or decades longer than what their crime justifies.

In a radio interview with Michelle Alexander, the author of New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow, she explains how imprisonment rates for minorities have been affected. Racial differences continue to be evident within mandatory minimum sentencing, allowing for harsher punishment towards minorities at the discretion of prosecutors. In a longitudinal study on mandatory minimums, it was found that those who presented in good social standing, and those who were women, received less severe sentences than similar offenders. It was also found that black and Hispanic offenders receive noticeably more severe sentences for the same charges as white offenders. Mandatory minimums are being used to enforce a longer punishment based on discretion of the prosecution, yet exempt those that have what are considered to be good characteristics. Any sentencing guideline that provides opportunity for discrimination based on race or sex should not exist. The SSA would directly limit the opportunity for non-violent offenders to be unfairly sentenced based on discriminatory tendencies, thus tackling a major problem that exists in our prison population today.

With the debt of so many lives at stake, it’s promising to see that for the first time in nearly 40 years Congress is reconsidering the drug policies of our country. Laws are continually changing, and adapting to the demands of the current times is a requirement of the legal system. The SSA is a big move that puts the careful consideration of sentencing back in the hands of the judge. Ultimately, non-violent drug offenders will be more appropriately punished while also being provided with avenues for rehabilitation, reducing the likelihood of ending up back in prison. Unfortunately all this attention comes only at a time when our prison population is seen as an expenditure, coming in at $80 billion a year, and a potentially avoidable one. It’s unsatisfying to know that hard on crime endorsers are backing this only in a time of financial need, ignoring the many moral dilemmas that exist with current minimum sentencing guidelines. What we need is reform, not for the money but for the millions of people, families and children included, that are unfairly suffering.

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2 Comments to “Trial and Error: Mandatory Minimums and the Prison Population”

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