Mandatory minimum sentences are prison sentences set by lawmakers rather than judges, where a statute requires an automatic, minimum prison terms for certain crimes, without permitting the judge to impose a more lenient sentence when the situation warrants. Without mandatory minimum sentences, the judge can consider factors like the defendant’s prior record, a history of drug addiction, extenuating circumstances, or whether the individual represents a real threat to public safety. In contrast, with mandatory minimum sentences, there can be no individualized justice to make the punishment fit the crime. The results are often outrageous, and the time has come to end mandatory minimum sentences.
Case and point: Fate Vincent Winslow. Mr. Winslow was a homeless man who, for $5, unwittingly facilitated an undercover police officer buy of $20 of marijuana. Because Mr. Winslow had two prior non-violent convictions for simple burglary (one from 23 years earlier, when he was still a teenager, and one from 14 years earlier) and one prior conviction for possession of cocaine (4 years earlier), the court was required to sentence him to a mandatory minimum sentence as a habitual offender. And so, rather than treating this small scale marijuana sale as the fairly minor crime that it was, committed by a non-violent, hungry, homeless person hoping to make a $5 commission, Mr. Winslow was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, without parole. He is currently serving out his life sentence at the notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana, one of the country’s most violent prisons.
When another mandatory minimum casualty, Sherman Chester, received a mandatory life without parole sentence for his third minor drug related offense, the sentencing judge complained of the mandatory minimum sentence, “This man doesn’t deserve a life sentence, and there is no way that I can legally keep from giving it to him.” The list of absurdly disproportionate mandatory minimum sentences could go on and on.
How can this be? A big part of our country’s mass incarceration problem comes from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes – sentencing regimes that fill the prison beds, but do so with non-violent, often low-level offenders who are usually in need of treatment, more than anything else. Ironically, our country’s obsession with increasing incarceration rates – the impetus behind the mandatory minimum laws – seems to have had no measurable effect on crime rates. According to a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University “the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate for the last 15 years has been effectively zero.”
A couple of years back, Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York dedicated a lengthy legal opinion to bemoaning how mandatory minimums result in “egregiously severe sentences, and judges have uniformly expressed frustration at being required to impose them.” As Judge Gleeson explained, under the mandatory sentencing schemes “the second most severe sentence in our system—mandatory life imprisonment—can be triggered by two ancient and minor drug convictions that do not even constitute felonies under federal law.” One of Judge Gleeson’s primary complaints is that, in addition to being draconian, the mandatory minimums are used by prosecutors to force defendants to plead guilty: “To coerce guilty pleas, and sometimes to coerce cooperation as well, prosecutors routinely threaten ultra-harsh, enhanced mandatory sentences that no one—not even the prosecutors themselves—thinks are appropriate.”
There is no way that locking up low level, non-violent offenders and throwing away the key is good for society. Volumes could be written about how such policies tear apart communities, cost tax payers outrageous sums, and accomplish absolutely nothing. It is time to shift the focus to treating the underlying causes of drug offenses —addiction, poverty, discrimination — with a focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. The decision of whether incarceration is warranted, and if so, what sentence is appropriate must be returned to the judges.