Most laws are bad and/or unnecessary. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are certainly no exception.
First of all, they have their roots in the anti-freedom, counterproductive drug war. In fact the first mandatory sentencing law in the United States was intended to force judges to sentence people to jail and bankrupt them for possessing marijuana. Over 60 years later, some local governments are finally allowing people to buy and sell cannabis without fear of state violence, but we are still stuck with these laws.
The main problem with mandatory minimum sentencing is that it shifts more power in the criminal justice system to the prosecutor. A prosecutor’s job is to try and convict people of “crimes” and extract money from them or lock them in a cage. An easy way to do this is just charge them with a crime that automatically carries a lengthy prison sentence, then offer to drop the charges if they plead guilty to a lesser offence that doesn’t. Even if they didn’t commit the more serious crime or are completely innocent, a defendant is likely to take this bargain out of fear of spending years in prison. This basically denies people the right to a jury trial in many cases.
That’s far from the only problem however. Most of these laws are designed to lock up drug dealers, but selling drugs is not a crime because there is no victim. So any law connected with the drug war is illegitimate from the start.
But even if mandatory minimum sentencing only applied to violent crime, it’s still unjust. I’m no fan of lawyers in robes (judges) deciding our fate, but surely there should be some discretion in sentencing. Is every assault really the same? Even murders can have some nuances that should be factored in when deciding whether someone needs to die in prison. Is killing an abusive husband the same as killing someone for money? Do they deserve the same sentence?
If you think politicians need to be tough on crime and force judges to lock people up for decades, just ask yourself if you or someone you care about has done anything that’s considered illegal. Possessed marijuana or some other contraband? Shoplifted? Committed “Fraud”? Fired a gun where you’re not supposed to? If you’ve done these things you could end up like these people:
- Weldon Angelos – 55 years for possessing a handgun while he sold $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant on three separate occasions
- Leandro Andrade – 50 years without parole for theft of nine video tapes
- Chantal McCorkle – 24 years for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud; sentence subsequently reduced to 18 years on appeal
- Richard Paey – 25 years for 15 counts of drug trafficking and other charges including fraud; granted a pardon in 2007 after serving three and a half years due to the circumstances of his drug use
- Timothy L. Tyler – Life in prison for possessing 13 sheets of LSD.