The Madness of Mandatory Minimums

The Scales of Justice

In a former life, I spent many a holiday and break from school hanging with the ‘long-haired hippie freaks’ who, like me, enjoyed a few hours spent grooving around various venues to the meandering and magical musical madness of the good old Grateful Dead. Oddly, not all of us at the shows were long-haired, and many, like me, were basically budding or full-fledged professionals.

Hippie freaks? Perhaps. Gainfully employed and fully engaged members of the broader society? Amongst my friends, yes.

I won’t say that we were a straight-laced crew. Far from it. But, we bought our tickets before showing up to the venues, paid our own way, and most preferred the comforts of the nearest hotel to the wilder times in various campgrounds where the festivities continued well into the wee hours. We enjoyed our time off, and ‘turned on and tuned out’ to the fullest possible extent. But, we did so responsibly (there was always a designated sober person to shepherd the flock).

It was during that incredibly fun-filled and enlightening time in the ’90s when I learned first-hand the absurdity of mandatory minimums, those most insane sentencing ‘guidelines’ which determine the minimum sentence for things such as possession of certain narcotics, or which determine that an individual gets three chances and then they are jailed for life regardless of the offense (three strikes). Sentences under mandatory minimums rarely fit the crime and often remove the uniqueness of an individual defendant and what lead them to appear in court.

A particularly gentle soul, as well as perhaps the unluckiest person I’ve ever known, was facing a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a third non-violent offence. He had been caught three times with relatively minor quantities of marijuana and LSD (not simultaneously), all under rather unfortunate sets of circumstances. He was 23 or 24 years old at the time, and one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people I have known before or since. It was heartbreaking. Prison would break him and eventually kill him, and, just about everyone who knew him understood that simple truth.

In the exceptional documentary, The House I Live In, the absurdity of mandatory minimums and the countless failures of the war on drugs are framed within the context of their effects on otherwise ordinary people, from the incarcerated, to those working within the criminal justice system to individual family members affected by drugs and unfair sentencing laws. The tragic consequences of policies which disproportionately affect the poor and minorities and a ‘war’ which has been waged on the American public are made all-too real. As I watched the Kevin Ott re-tell his own tragic story, I was reminded of my friend’s story from two decades ago:

Story after story after story in this fine, troubling film demonstrate how mandatory minimums are not helping to reduce drug-related crime or drug use itself. Rather, they are forcing judges to sentence those caught to prison terms that are ‘unfair and unjust’ and condemning individuals and families deal with the tragic consequences generation after generation. The cycle of drug-dealing, poverty and hopelessness continue , and specifically impact inner-city African American men disproportionately.

Two decades after an otherwise privileged young man awaited an unfair sentence for a non-violent crime which hurt no one (possession of an ounce of marijuana), the US Attorney General is finally talking sense:

‘While the entire U.S. [prison] population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal population has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800%,’ Holder’s speech says. ‘It’s still growing, despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.’

It’s two decades too late for my friend. But, it’s never too late to make a sound policy change, particularly one which is based on a fair and just system and which doesn’t mete out punishments far exceeding the crimes, or which, by design, unevenly targets those who are simply attempting to survive the only way that they know how.