Pubdate: Tue, 20 Jan 2015
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2015 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: Erich Prince
Note: Erich Prince, a former Duke University student, is an 
undergraduate studying political philosophy at Yale University.


In a notable instance of bipartisanship, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and 
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) co-sponsored a bill last session seeking to 
address concerns about the harmful effects of mandatory minimum 
sentencing. If it had passed, the Justice Safety Valve Act would have 
allowed judges to deviate from mandatory minimums in instances where 
they deemed a lesser sentence to be warranted. Mandatory minimums 
imposed by legislatures prescribe specific sentences for certain 
offenses, particularly those involving drugs. This policy was 
intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion 
afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who 
had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and 
equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning 
legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily 
lengthy prison sentences while also failing to deter crime.

A government ought not deprive a citizen of his liberty except if he 
poses a concrete risk to the security of others. Many sentenced under 
mandatory minimums are nonviolent offenders who would have received 
lighter sentences or even probation but were required to be 
incarcerated. Weldon Angelos, a man with no prior convictions, was 
sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying 
a firearm. The U.S. District Court judge who was bound by the 
mandatory minimum when sentencing Angelos called the punishment 
"unjust, cruel and even irrational."

In 2010, 14.5 percent of all federal sentences were the result of 
mandatory minimums. This statistic demands we re-examine the practice 
of incarcerating innumerable Americans without considering the unique 
aspects of their particular transgressions. The discretion we sought 
to eliminate because it resulted in sentencing imbalances still 
exists. It just has been transferred from judges to prosecutors. 
Prosecutors, who may have political incentives to accumulate 
convictions, have the nearly unrestricted liberty to determine 
whether to charge a defendant and also to choose the severity of the 
charges to levy.

Mandatory sentencing has not been demonstrated to reduce crime. Among 
the assumptions behind enacting these laws was the belief that before 
committing a crime, an individual would act rationally and consider 
the severe sentence that might result. However, the certainty of 
punishment is a more effective deterrent than its severity. Also, 
sentencing low-level drug distributors to long prison terms does not 
reduce crime because their role will be quickly filled by others.

Mandatory minimums for drug offenses are also condemned for their 
tendency to create a "cliff"  where a slight increase in the quantity 
possessed of a substance may result in a much lengthier sentence. For 
example, under one state's statute, possession of 5.01 grams of 
"crack"  cocaine results in a mandatory five-year sentence; however, 
possession of 5.0 grams of "crack"  carries a relatively short sentence.

Acknowledging the high recidivism rate in the United States along 
with the relative frequency of violence in prisons, we should avoid 
incarcerating offenders who are not a risk to public safety. Between 
2011 and 2012, 4 percent of prison inmates were the victims of 
unwanted sexual contact. Trials as taxing as physical and sexual 
assault combined with often not receiving educational or vocational 
training while incarcerated makes rejoining communities and families 
quite difficult. More than three-quarters of released inmates are 
arrested again within five years.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 63 
percent of Americans support replacing mandatory prison sentencing 
for nonviolent drug offenders with alternatives such as treatment for 
addiction. In 2001, only 47 percent of Americans supported such a 
shift. Although altering policy on the basis of shifting public 
opinion alone is hardly advisable, this change in opinion likely 
demonstrates that the public has become aware of the compelling 
reasons to discontinue the practice.

Although the executive branch has acted to mitigate the pernicious 
consequences of mandatory sentencing, Congress and state legislatures 
should put forward bills along the lines of the Justice Safety Valve 
Act to reinstate judicial discretion. It is time to end the practice 
of confining countless Americans to prison for often 
disproportionately lengthy sentences without considering the unique 
aspects of their cases.
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