Student Perspective: Mandatory minimum sentencing

We asked college students from a variety of backgrounds and political stances to share their thoughts on mandatory minimum sentencing. Their perspectives are below.

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Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have forced judges into dishing out long and devastating sentences. This system has led to an increase in defendants pleading guilty to cut a deal and avoid the trial process altogether. Consequently, 95 percent of federal drug defendants plead guilty and more importantly, men and women are locked up in the same prisons as violent crime offenders.

Because of these laws--coupled with the overlong war on drugs--federal prisons have seen dramatic increases since the early 1980’s. The injustices go far beyond the numbers; the real crime lies in how the people in power perpetuate a broken, imbalanced criminal justice system that's more likely to pursue, arrest, and incarcerate people based solely on the color of their skin. A system that adamantly refuses to enforce sentencing laws across the ethnic/racial spectrum equally harbors uncomfortable truths about equity responsibility.

I have been fortunate not to have any close friends or family members feel the devastating force of this system, but none of us can ignore the pain that so many of our fellow Americans feel every day. At Rutgers-Camden, there are a number of students and families who have been impacted by this unfortunate reality. For the people I've spoken to, the system paints their family members as hardened criminals, instead of individuals facing overwhelming challenges. And in some cases, this cultural and societal perspective creates a feeling of isolation, resentment, and a lack of compassion.

Above all, prison cannot be a place where people are locked away, forgotten about, and left to fend for themselves upon release. A better public discussion about criminal justice reform needs to happen. We must legislate the expansion of vocational training, academic studies, and drug treatment programs. Our correctional facilities must become places of rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society, giving a fair shot to defendants redeeming the future they have lost. If not, those who have been incarcerated will continue to serve a life sentence long after they have completed their time.

- Samuel Tuero, Rutgers University ‘20

 

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The notion that mandatory minimums are an inherent injustice stems from a misunderstanding of the law as well as its public perception.

Mandatory minimums serve several useful purposes in the justice process. Firstly, mandatory minimum sentencing provides a guideline for the states to follow to help ensure a balanced application of justice. They also help during sentencing negotiations by providing a starting point. While other factors like prior criminal history and the context surrounding the crime are taken into account, having a baseline strengthens the overall process.

Many of the frustrations with mandatory minimums are due to a failure to realize that laws and statutes, created and revised by elected officials, will not always be perfectly in line with prevailing public thought. It is the sole job of the courts to interpret the laws enacted by the legislature. If new understanding or information regarding a topic requires an update to the law, then change must be sought through the legislature to adjust sentencing, classifications, or whatever necessary to ensure that justice remains just.

Concerning prison overcrowding, again the fault is disproportionately blamed on mandatory minimums. For example, budgetary problems from state to state that cause the removal of necessary programs such as addiction treatment to mental health facilities further increase the probability of the released to return to criminality. Attorney client payment negotiations also add to the overcrowding problem by keeping their clients in custody after they are charged when they cannot afford bail, out of fear that releasing them through a deal will result in them never getting paid.

In conclusion, we need to focus on the right problems. Instead of over-emphasizing mandatory minimum sentencing, we should work on streamlining the discovery process and pressuring the legislature to fund programs for defendants both pre- and post-trial. Additionally, we must work on revising more just sentences for crimes that have evolved away from the draconian scent of criminality from older times, rather than focusing on the justice system that merely follows and interprets the prior precedent as well as the laws and policies of the current political administration.

- Cristian Gonzalez , Cornell University ‘20

 

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Mandatory minimums have the potential to be a hallmark of the justice system. Brock Turner would not have avoided the punishment he deserved if rape required ten, five, even three years in prison. Consistency is a hallmark of justice, and having minimums from the federal government can limit state-by-state differences in sentencing.

The problem is that mandatory minimums consistently impact minority communities. Most of the mandatory minimums are related to drug crimes that are disproportionately enforced against black and latinx populations. Nixon official Ehrlichman even admitted in an interview that the “War on Drugs” was really a war on the left and blacks. These minimums sentences are couched in poor information and ulterior motivations. There is no reason someone who distributes marijuana should get five years mandatory, the same punishment as treason. Mandatory minimums need to adapt to the attitudes in society, and be aimed at preserving the humanity of those who are sentenced under them, not misguided ideas of retribution.

- Barron Williams , Cornell University ‘19

 

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Since their inception following the passage of the Boggs Act of 1952, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been used by both federal and state authorities to curtail criminal behavior (particularly drug use and trafficking) by imposing harsh prison terms to dissuade potential offenders from engaging in illicit activity. In recent history, presidents have ratcheted up mandatory sentencing as part of an ongoing campaign to undermine the proliferation of drug trafficking nationwide. Beginning with the Nixon administration, all the way through Clinton and both Bushes, the infamous “War on Drugs” continues to address the United States’ drug epidemic with what most developed nations would consider draconian penalties.

The mass rate of continued incarceration follows as a direct result of the misguided logic that a one-size-fits-all justice system creates equality in prosecution and sentencing. Under this dangerous framework, sentencing power falls principally into the laps of prosecutors who have a vested interest in winning a conviction, as opposed to a judge having ultimate discretion over the appropriate sentence for an individual offender. Perhaps even more frightening, prosecutors have greater ability to use brinksmanship to coerce harsh plea bargains, as an accused individual may take a lesser plea to avoid serving a full sentence mandated by the mandatory sentencing regime.

According to one District Court judge writing for the American Bar Association, mandatory minimum sentences “don’t differentiate between the kingpin and the schnook” and have done nothing but pad federal and state correctional facilities with non-violent offenders. Proponents of mandatory guidelines for criminal sentencing continue to misleadingly argue that high stakes and a uniform sentencing regime will reduce future criminal activity and limit arbitrary sentencing. However, as Kevin Ring, former congressional aide and a key architect of federal mandatory minimum laws, states in a testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “many offenders made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was […] so you can make the severity off the charts […] it’s not going to stop the crime from happening.” And therein lies the key problem that flips the logic of mandatory sentencing on its head: firstly, a criminal willing to break the law is more often than not going to take the gamble in hopes of not getting caught; secondly, if the offender is not aware of the penalty, then the law fails to deter the crime in the first place!

At the end of the day, the justice system in the status quo sacrifices honest and tailored responses to crime in favor of a lazy and misguided system that legal architects, including once staunch advocates such as former President Clinton, have cited as utter failures and contributors to a culture of incarceration and transgenerational crime.”

- Vincenzo Guido, Cornell University ‘20