In the United States, there is increasing tension between the police and the civilian populations due to the blatant corruption and injustice plaguing the criminal justice system. While police officers commit crimes in the streets, injustice also exists within the courts and prisons due to mandatory minimum sentences. Initiated as part of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentences have failed in their promise to upend large scale drug operations and truly lessen drug related crime. Instead, mandatory minimums have dehumanized defendants and have increased the incarceration rate substantially. As a result, prisons don’t have the resources to provide proper rehabilitation to inmates.
On first glance, the logic behind mandatory minimums seems to make sense. In reality, mandatory minimum sentences have done little to actually lower drug related crime in the U.S. To have an effect on drug crime, states need to direct their efforts to locking up the leaders of large scale operations. The wave of incarceration that has resulted from the establishment of mandatory minimum sentences targets low-level, nonviolent offenders, who are often possessing or distributing drugs to fuel an addiction as opposed to profiting off the masses. According to Tanya Golash-Boza for PBS News, giving nonviolent addicts and offenders 10-20 year sentences “has a minimal effect on crime rates.”
Even if mandatory minimums lived up to their purpose of lowering crime and lessening the presence of drugs in society, the program is still morally reprehensible with its prioritization of incarceration over humanity. Mandatory minimum sentences allow and encourage prosecutors and courtrooms to ignore mitigating factors in individual cases and instead treat each case as if every detail was uniform. They ignore intention, social factors and the basic rights we all have against cruel and unusual punishment. Federal Judge Mark Bennett perfectly describes this conundrum in an interview with National Public Radio’s Rachel Martin as he explains:
“For example, you have a low-level nonviolent drug offender,” Bennett said. “One is selling methamphetamine for profit, and one is using methamphetamine and maybe trading it to other drug addicts to support their addiction. Does it really make sense to treat a for-profit seller and a non-for-profit user the same? I don’t think so because Congress has also said we’re supposed to look at the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.”
Mandatory minimums ignore circumstance and reduce people to the archetype of their crime instead of allowing courtrooms to operate how they are meant to.
While mandatory minimum sentences were implemented to help create a drug free society, they have done nothing more than skyrocket incarceration rates and set a courtroom standard that values the number of incarcerations for a crime over the people involved in said crime. It takes humanity out of the courtroom and treats drug offenders as a problem to hide away in overcrowded jails instead of taking the opportunity to offer fair sentences and rehabilitation.
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