Injustice and irrationality in sentencing policy

Emily Kowalik ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor

The White House recently announced President Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of 61 people, all of whom were serving time in federal prison for drug-related crimes. All 61 of the people whose sentences were commuted were nonviolent offenders, arrested and convicted for either possession of drugs or possession of drugs with the intent to distribute. With these most recent commutations, the number of prisoners whose sentences Obama has commuted within the last two years now reaches 248, an amount higher than all the last six presidents together.

These commutations have often come in cases involving mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums were introduced in the ’80s and ’90s, and these laws obligated judges to give sentences, for certain crimes, for a minimum number of years in prison, regardless of the context and circumstances surrounding the conviction. These mandatory minimum sentencing laws, many of which were created during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations, were intended to act as scare tactics.

According to the Washington Post, since the instigation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the amount of inmates in U.S. prisons has more than quadrupled. The amount of inmates currently incarcerated has reached around two million people, approximately 1 in every 100 adults. These steep penalty laws have had a statistically disproportionate effect on African American and Hispanic men.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws were created during a period in our history when Americans were promoting a crackdown on crime through a major anti-drug campaign. The prevailing thought at the time was that stricter sentencing was the key to reducing drug crime, ensuring uniformity in sentencing and deterring potential criminals as well as hardened repeat offenders.

Many, including myself, now see mandatory minimums as an ineffective method of crime deterrence and as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The sentences that non-violent drug offenders have received due to these laws have often been harsher than those for crimes involving physical violence toward victims.

I agree with the statement presented by the American Bar Association in 2009: “Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy.” In the current sentencing system, there is no need for mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums serve to shift discretion away from judges — whose proper role is taking into account the circumstances of a case — and onto the prosecutors who decide which charges to bring against the defendant. These prosecutors have the ability to over-charge a defendant as a method of getting them to plead guilty. Since prosecutors are part of the executive branch, this shift in who makes the sentencing decision weakens the concept of separation of powers.

I’m in favor of Obama’s long-time support for removing strict sentencing requirements for nonviolent drug offenses, and agree with his reasoning for these measures, that is, that the length of term given to nonviolent drug offenders is often an excessive punishment and leads to prison overcrowding. Prison terms of 20 or 30 years, or in some cases even lifelong imprisonment, are often unwarranted and unjust sentences to impose under the individual circumstances of these cases. I agree with Obama’s statement, given during the press conference addressing his most recent commutations, in which he said that these mandatory minimums are “not serving taxpayers … not serving public safety [and] damaging families.”

There are many people currently serving sentences who would have received significantly reduced sentences had they been convicted under the sentencing laws in effect today. There has been movement toward addressing these disparities, such as the work done by the Clemency Project, which was initiated by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole. The mission is to get help from the legal community in identifying inmates who fit the qualifications for having their sentences reduced. Also, more recently the Department of Justice has directed federal prosecutors to curb the amount of mandatory minimum sentences and has begun taking steps toward the release of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

However, more initiatives should be directed towards meaningful reform of excessive prison terms for non-violent drug offenders. For example, Congress would do well to consider legislative reforms in the area of mandatory minimums.

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