By Annie Bolthrunis, editor
“The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements.” – drugpolicy.org
As the “leader of the free world,” the United States is grossly behind many other developed countries in terms of imprisonment and sentencing laws. For instance, of the 194 countries that are part of the UN, 50% have abolished the death penalty entirely, 4% employ it in extraordinary circumstances, and 25% have it on the books for ordinary crimes, but have not used it in ten or more years. The United States falls into the 22% of UN members or countries with UN Observer status who maintain the death penalty both in theory and practice. We are one of only a few countries who are willing to sentence both teenagers and the mentally retarded to death.
Capital punishment is a contentious issue in the United States today, but the death penalty is not the most dangerous law on the books in the US. The recent Trayvon Martin case illustrates other problems with our justice system as it’s brought Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use “necessary force” in self defense outside of the home, to the public eye and has sparked debate about the constitutionality of such self-defense laws. Perhaps the most unfair of our laws are mandatory sentencing laws.
While some crimes obviously warrant a harsh sentence (murder, child abuse), harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders do nothing but hurt not only the offender, but also society as a whole. Taking people out of society and imprisoning them for long periods of time doesn’t do much except prevent people who could be rehabilitated from being rehabilitated, and in some cases, may even turn these people into violent offenders, as life in prison is vastly different from life on the outside – prisoners may learn “tricks” or develop habits that could turn them into violent offenders once they are released.
Imprisoning a single person can cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the state and the length of the sentence. While drug rehabilitation isn’t cheap, it’s a much shorter-term option which, in the long run, would cost less than many sentences, such as California’s “Three Strikes” laws, which enable to court to imprison someone for life once they have three offenses on their record, regardless of the crimes committed.
One of the major problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is they seem to unfairly target minority offenders. According to Executive Summary: Report to Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, “Hispanic offenders accounted for the largest group (38.3%) of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, followed by Black offenders at 31.5 percent, White offenders at 27.4 percent and Other Race offenders at 2.7 percent.”
Clearly, the United States has moved leaps and bounds in terms of racial disparity since the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, but these statistics show that we have no come far enough. I might be more likely to believe in these mandatory minimum sentencing laws if they affected all races equally, but they do not. The majority of US citizens are not hispanic (although in many states they make up a larger portion than in the past), and the rates of drug use among races is roughly the same. Another startling statistic that shows the disparity of the application of sentencing between races: according to The Sentencing Project, in 2003, with 34/50 states responding, it was found that per million people, 2562 people who were imprisoned for drug offenses were black, while 253 were white.
It will be impossible to make all laws fair to all people all the time, but there is plenty of room for improvement. As a country, we are sending a message to minorities that they do not have equal opportunities within our justice system – they are clearly at a distinct disadvantage. They have less access to premium defenders; they frequently have to rely on public defenders who are notoriously unreliable (many are very good and some are very bad, many fall in between.)
It is up to to population as a whole to promote programs like Changing Lives, which aim to alleviate the strain on the prison and criminal justice system by promoting rehabilitation rather than punishment. While promoting and supporting alternative sentencing programs will not solve all of the countries problems with our criminal justice system, acting in support of these programs will raise awareness to their existence. If people are vocal about their support for the elimination of such injustices as mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses and “Three Strikes” laws, perhaps the people who are getting the laws on books and ballots will be moved. It’s an election year, everyone – the perfect time to make our voices heard. Of the people, by the people, for the people: let this be our mantra when it comes to injustice in our justice system.