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.

30 thoughts on “The Madness of Mandatory Minimums

  1. Whenever the government is involved with social issues it screws up. I do not care what you do as long as you do not impose your actions on me. Then you need my permission to do your actions. If you do not drive while dubbied up or fly an airplane or do brain surgery on my being I will stay out of your face. I really do not care whether you hurt yourself or not. It is your decision and I can not control your actions much less your mind set.

  2. This is a great addition to this growing discussion. Thanks for writing and thanks for sharing the film clips. Makes me think…what can I do about this?

    • Thanks for the kind words! And, for reading! If you want to get involved, check out Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Also, let your elected officials know that you do not support mandatory minimums, assuming that’s your stance. The more we collectively let our representatives know the type of society we want to live in, the more likely we are to see it become reality.

    • ‘The House I Live In’, as well as the series ‘The Wire’, which deals with many of the same issues vis-a-vis the ‘war on drugs’, are well worth watching. Tragic and real, but incredibly thought-provoking all the same.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Love the wire, actually own the whole series! By far one of the most authentic portrayals of how difficult inner city kids really have it.

      • Precisely! David Simon, the writer for The Wire, features prominently in the documentary. If you like The Wire, you’re going to be blown away by the integrity and honesty of The House I Live In.

  3. In many european countries, the law states mandatory minimums for certain offences. Still, under special circumstances the judge is allowed to deviate from these minimums. This is not the case in the US?

    • That is my understanding. Sentencing ‘guidelines’ are determined by a board for certain offences and for specific types and weights of narcotics. If a mandatory sentence for the offence is listed, then regardless of the opinion of the judge or any special considerations or circumstances, that minimum sentence is what the defendant gets. It’s insane, really. It would be one thing if the sentences were fair or at least consistent / fitting for a crime. But, all you have to do is look at the minimums for things like crack cocaine vs powder cocaine. Likewise, in some cases, individuals found guilty of possession or trafficking of narcotics are handed longer sentence terms than individuals found guilty of rape, sexual assault, manslaughter and murder.

  4. I take COMPLETE responsibility for my actions.
    I don’t totally agree with minimum sentences for crimes, but I can’t understand why criminals shouldn’t be getting what’s due to them. Maybe place drug addicts in clinics instead of jail, but you need to be punished for your crimes! I’m also for drug testing of welfare recipients, as if I’m (a taxpayer) going to support them, they should be drug free. Maybe more availability to family planning clinics so more children don’t have to suffer because their parents needed a thrill. This would be alternates for lighter sentences.
    Congrats on getting pressed!

    • Many thanks for reading and for your comments!

      Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for ‘no’ punishment for true crimes. I’m simply talking about the seemingly arbitrary sentences for crimes which are a) non-violent; and b) treat everyone as if the circumstances of their own lives make no difference.

      My friend was neither an ‘addict’ nor violent. He may have been stupid and incredibly unlucky. But certainly not a violent human being in any way. Something which was brought up at his trial. But, he was facing the rest of his life in prison for possession of relatively small quantities. Is that fair? (Would you think differently if you knew he was a white, middle class, engineering graduate from a stable family and with a promising future?)

      Punishment, yes. But, did he commit a crime which was worthy of a lifetime without parole in prison? Does *anyone* who has committed a non-violent crime?

      It’s an entirely separate topic, and certainly also worthy of discussion, but I am not in favour of drug testing of any kind for any reason. First, drug testing only shows if someone has used drugs at some point — not when and certainly not when they are on the job. How many individuals show up for work hung over? Do we test for that? And, it is an utter waste of money to test welfare / social service recipients. In places where testing of welfare recipients is mandatory, millions more in tax revenue is spent on the tests compared to a mere thousands saved for the handful of cases where an individual has tested positive. Thus, spending of your tax dollars increases and your taxes are wasted needlessly.

      Re: family planning. I’ve no idea what you mean here. Family planning should be available to anyone who wants it. What that has to do with ‘lighter’ sentences I’m not sure. Family planning itself is another worthy topic. But, I think it best discussed outside the discussion of mandatory minimums. The two to my mind are not at all related and shouldn’t be confused.

  5. life in prison without parol for what seems a relatively minor charge…who pays for all these people to waste away in prison? im sure they are not all drug addicts now, im sure many have “grown” out of their drug hazed coma.

    im all for punishing people for drugs, but this is harsh.

    • Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve shared it with my network and hope others will do the same. I can’t think of a better example of just how insane mandatory minimums are.

  6. How about holding law enforcement personnel up to the same assault laws as everyone else? That’s the direction in which our legislators should be working. Or how about when prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence? How about a mandatory sentence of twice the maximum on the table for the defendant?

    Great post and thanks for the lead to The House I Live In. Have you ever seen the documentary “a/k/a Tommy Chong”?

    • Thanks, and thanks for reading! I know of the case of Tommy Chong, but I’m not sure that I’ve seen the documentary now that you mention it. Will definitely (re-) watch it though.

  7. Hello, I am new to the blogging world. I see that you have a good audience on your blog. I am an author and I just published my autobiography. I self published so I need to market it on my own. I want to raise awareness about my book so that it can reach and impact as many people as possible. If you can put this on your blog for your readers I would greatly appreciate it. I see that you have quite the following and it would really help if I had somebody with experience to help me promote my book. Thank you!! If you can even go to my blog and ‘reblog’ my post about my book that would be awesome thank you so much!! Even if you can support me by reading my book that would be awesome!!

    • Many thanks for your kind words, and for the additional food for thought. I think we all too often forget about the attorneys and judges in the equation.

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