Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Who Are Mandatory Minimum Jail Sentences Helping?

Criminal justice reform is shaping up to be a major transpartisan issue this year, with influential members of both Republican and Democratic Parties recognizing that the current system is broken.

If the goal of the justice system is to protect the innocent, and to maximize peaceful and productive activity within society, it does not take a rocket scientist to observe the ways in which the status quo fails to achieve these goals.

One of the most pressing, and yet most easily corrected, problems with the justice system is the lack of flexibility given to judges to pass sentence on non-violent offenders. Mandatory minimum laws currently dictate that a non-violent drug offender be sentenced to no less than five years for their first offense. Does this make sense?

Consider the following scenario:

An 18-year-old gets busted for marijuana possession, and the law dictates that he spend five years in prison. We accept this without question. He broke the law, he must be punished. End of story.

But isn’t the purpose of the law to protect people, to help them, to make them better off? If so, we owe it to ourselves to ask this question: Who benefits from this policy?

The boy was not hurting anyone, so there are no victims to protect. The boy himself is not made better off, for he spends the next five years gaining no life experience or useful skills, with the only people around him from whom he can learn are hardened criminals – who are not exactly the best teachers of how to be a productive member of society.

When he emerges, the permanent blight of a felony conviction will effectively destroy any hope he has of a successful life. The boy’s family is not made better off, instead being deprived of a loved one for half a decade. The taxpayers are not made better off, for we now have to provide for his food and clothing and medical care.

The only conceivable answer to the question "who benefits?" is a meaningless cliché. Society, we are told, benefits.

We don’t want to live in a society where drug use is encouraged or permitted, so society benefits from removing such people from the streets. But society is merely the word we use to refer to a large group of individuals living near one another. In order for society to benefit, individuals within that society must also benefit. And if we can find no individuals that benefit from a particular public policy, is it really a policy worth pursuing?

Last year, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) introduced the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders, a bill which is likely to be introduced again this Congress.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have introduced the complementary bill, The Justice Safety Valve Act, that would allow judges to live up to their name, bypassing mandatory minimum requirements in special cases if they deem it appropriate. Reforms like this are crucial to untying the hands of the justice system and allow us to treat defendants as individual humans, rather than undistinguished cogs in a machine.

Anthony Burgess, in his classic work of dystopian fiction, "A Clockwork Orange,"observes, "Cram criminals together and see what happens. You get concentrated criminality, crime in the midst of punishment."

This sentiment captures the essence of why prisons fail in the case of non-violent offenders. There is nothing like spending years in the exclusive company of felons to transform a man from a youthful miscreant into a hardened thug. Allowing judges more discretion to evaluate individual cases is the first step towards fixing this problem, and making our justice system more fair and effective for all.

Original report here

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