The Criminal Justice system in the United States was based on the idea that once people served their time, they would be able to come back into society as fully functioning members. Rehabilitation was the name of the game and was what we pursued. Of course, there would be some individuals who went back to a life of crime; but it was not fair to punish the vast majority for the actions of the few. However, the structure of our Criminal Justice System has changed. Instead of pursuing rehabilitation we have sought after more and more retributionist policies, each political party fighting to escape the label “weak on crime.” One such symptom of this political maneuvering has been the enactment of Mandatory Minimum Sentences. Mandatory Minimums are, as defined by USLegal, are “the fixed sentence that a judge is forced to deliver to an individual convicted of a crime, neglecting the culpability and other mitigating factors involved in the crime” (US Legal). These sentences have forced non-violent offenders to spend years in prison based upon arbitrary guidelines (Martin). Supporters of Mandatory Minimum Sentences argue that they are more egalitarian in nature as they ensure judges cannot exercise jurisprudential bias (Martin). Instead, this policy has habitually disenfranchised people of color, carrying harsher sentences for drugs related to persons of color (ACLU). Federal Judge Bennet furthers that these guidelines that judges must follow “support unwarranted uniformity by treating everyone the same way even though their situations are dramatically different” (Martin). Mandatory Minimums affect society on every level, from the judicial to the people in prisons, all the way to each and every individual living within the United States. They force us all into a discriminatory system that corrupts and corrodes the fabric of our Criminal Justice System and worsen the very same problem which they set out to fix.
The idea of retributive justice is that equal punishment should be enforced based on the crime committed, i.e. a murderer would face punishment equal to that of the murder they committed. While retributive justice achieves justice in certain circumstances, the policy becomes problematic when applied universally. It is impossible to punish a drug addict in a retributive manner. No situation is black and white, and there is rarely if ever a clear right and wrong. Out of this understanding, the United States based its criminal justice system off of rehabilitation, opting to attempt to reintegrate people back into society after they misstep. Yet to ensure justice we gave judges what is referred to as jurisprudence, or the ability to determine the sentence for an individual convicted of a crime. This allows judges to determine how long an individual would need to be rehabilitated or give out a punishment equal to that of the crime committed based upon the circumstances around the crime. Mandatory minimum sentencing does away with this option by forcing judges to give out a sentence which is federally regulated based upon simple factors such as how much the drugs one possesses weighs. Included in this is also the amount of substances which are non-drug ingredients which come with the drugs (Mandatory Minimums). These sentences not only eliminate jurisprudence but have greatly expanded the federal prison system in the United States, making it much larger than the state prison systems, and contributing to the prisoner problem in the United States. Mandatory Minimums do not allow judges to consider the difference in circumstance for individuals convicted. There is a massive difference in individuals who are drug users and drug dealers, while there is no difference in sentencing. Drug dealers are operating a for-profit enterprise which addicts people, ruins the life of people, and kills people, while users are dealing with a medical problem called addiction (Martin). Instead of judges being able to rehabilitate these addicted individuals who have succumbed to drugs or circumstance they are forced to give them the same retributionist sentence as a dealer (Martin). This adversely affects even those who are guilty of nothing but association.
For example, Brenda Valencia’s aunt was planning to engage in drug dealing while Brenda was unaware. Since her aunt didn’t have a car Brenda gave her a ride to a house where she then sold seven kilos of cocaine. Regardless of her ignorance, Brenda was sentenced to the mandatory minimum for this amount of cocaine – ten years in prison (Mandatory Sentencing). Brenda is not alone in falling victim to the mandatory sentencing guidelines which federal judges must follow. This story has played out time and time again.
Lance Marrow was living at his residency unaware his roommate was doing and selling cocaine. When Police raided his home, he was treated as if all of the cocaine found was also his. At the age of 50, Lance was sentenced to fifteen years to life. (Mandatory Sentencing). Instead of treating these cases individually and weighing these individuals’ levels of guilt in the circumstances surrounding the crimes, judges are forced to bow to the whims of prosecutors who get to decide the sentencing for the people charged. They are able to use threats of longer sentences to extract guilty pleas from people rather than taking them to trial. Ninety-five percent of drug defendants plead guilty every year (Mandatory Minimums). In the case of Brenda Valencia, the presiding judge commented that
“This case is the perfect example of why the minimum mandatory sentences and the sentencing guidelines are not only absurd, but an insult to justice. This young lady does not need to be sentenced to 151 months without parole; however, the law is the law, and we’re all bound to obey it. But it’s absolutely ridiculous to impose this sentence in this case, considering the degree of participation that this defendant had in the crime” (Mandatory Sentencing).
Instead of justly convicting based on the crime committed, judges are forced into sentencing guidelines which put people behind bars as if they’ve been convicted of crimes much worse than they committed.
Mandatory Minimum’s Origins
Mandatory Minimum Sentences were born in the era of the war on drugs, which was started by Richard Nixon and popularized by Ronald Reagan. During this time the minimum possible sentence for drug offenses was established. Mandatory Minimums as they exist today largely apply to drug charges which were created with certain inequalities in mind. The War on Drugs, and Mandatory Minimums as an extension, exist as a tool to jail political opponents and put people of color in prison, as well as vilify them. Former Nixon domestic policy chief commented this on the war on drugs:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (LoBianco).
This racial targeting did not stop with the Nixon administration though. In 2011 38% of those who received a mandatory minimum sentence were Latino, and 31% were black (The Drug War). A different way to look at this: one in three black men will end up in prison and one in six Latino men will as well, but only one in nine white men (Criminal Justice Facts). Throughout the drug war instead of pursuing policies geared towards reincorporating people back into society, political jockeying has forced the hand of the criminal justice system towards harsher penalties for non-violent offenders rather than the rehabilitation and help with addiction they so desperately need.
Some critics argue that prison is the ultimate rehabilitation center, as drug addicts do not have access to illicit substances in prison. This is not true. Inmates will go to extraordinary lengths to get high in prison with many resorting to common household items or illegally obtaining prescription drugs from visitors and smuggling them back into the prison and selling or taking them (Abadi). In 2011 the New York State Department of corrections reported an annual positive drug test rate of past 2.9 and 3.8 percent. There are over 1,000 drug seizures a year in California prisons, and Florida reported 1,132 positive drug test results in one year (Junkins). We are taking addicts and putting them in a place where there are more drugs. These people are already behind bars for several years with little if any incentive for good behavior based on their five or more-year sentences. The only thing standing in between them and the drugs is a longer sentence, but they’re already in prison, a prison sentence was the only thing standing in their way before they got there. Why would that cause them to stop now?
This lack of rehabilitation has led to the United States having more people in prison than any other country in the world (Criminal Justice Facts). Because of Mandatory Minimums (and thus longer sentences), individuals are spending longer periods of time in prison, dramatically inflating the population levels of the US Prison System. There has been a 500% increase in inmates across the United States over the last 40 years, with 2.2 million people in US Prisons, the majority of these being drug offenses (Criminal Justice Facts). A study from the Pew Research Center shows that about a third of drug offenders will be convicted of crimes and go back into prison, a phenomenon called recidivism (Federal Drug Sentencing…). If the goal of our Criminal Justice System is for people to not commit crimes again, it is obviously failing. If, on the other hand, the goal is for drug offenders to stay in prison, the prison system is working, as sentences for drug offenders have risen thirty-six percent since 1980 (Federal Drug Sentencing…). This eliminates people from the workforce, pushes them back into the system, costs taxpayers money, and intensifies the drug problem in the United States. More than being wrong, to subject people to a system that works to put them back into the system, mandatory minimums present a massive harm to society. After Mandatory minimum sentences were enacted the violent crime rate in the United States reached a higher rate than at any previous time in history at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 residents (Federal Drug Sentencing…). These sentencing guidelines and requirements push people to more and more extremes and reduced the possibility for parole for those individuals convicted. Newer laws were put in place which forced those serving mandatory minimums to serve eighty-five percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole and eliminating the possibility of parole for some offenders altogether. Repeat offenders are subjected to doubled sentences, and triple offenders are sentenced to life in prison with the birth of the three-strike law which exists as a mandatory minimum sentence (Federal Drug Sentencing…). But these mandatory minimums are not just ineffective in rehabilitating people, they have also been ineffective in their original intent to keep drugs off the streets.
The availability of illicit substances has done nothing but increase from the era of mandatory minimum sentences being enacted. The prices of illicit drugs have decreased from 1981 to 2012, even while purer, typically more expensive versions of the drug, have increasingly been sold. Corresponding with this price decrease, illegal drug use has increased since 1990 from 6.4 percent to 9.2 percent or twenty-four million people (Federal Drug Sentencing…). This policy of mandatory minimums also does little to nothing to stop the illegal drug trade, as it is very unlikely that the people processing massive amounts of drugs are going to be arrested. The chances of being arrested during a sale of cocaine in the United States is one in fifteen-thousand (Federal Drug Sentencing…). Even if street-level dealers are arrested, replacing them is easy as the rarity of arrests is not enough to discourage many from participating in the drug trade. Instead of prioritizing locking people up, we need to prioritize policies which get to the heart of the problem which we tried to solve with mandatory minimums. We need to solve the want to sell drugs. We need to cure addicts. We need to create communities and programs which don’t force people to sell drugs out of necessity. And we need to help communities which are breeding grounds for drug dealers become breeding grounds for people with dreams, and hopes, and people who don’t feel as if their only option is to sell dope.
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