We’re Exceptional, All Right

Nicholas Kristof recently reported on the consequences of a Texas drug sweep. He began by asking readers to pretend that they’re the judge:

She’s a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.

There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What’s your sentence?

You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense.

This isn’t, unfortunately, an anomaly. America currently has 3,278 people serving life sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. In twenty percent of those cases, it was the person’s first offense.

Welcome to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Welcome to laws that don’t allow judges to judge, to calibrate sentences to the specifics of the case before them. Laws that give frustrated jurists no choice but to impose draconian penalties no matter how outrageously disproportionate or unjust they believe those penalties to be.

Welcome to “getting tough on crime” — and of course, welcome to the War on Drugs.

We’re talking about crimes like possession of a crack pipe. Or acting as a go-between in a drug sale. Or trying to cash a stolen check, or shoplifting. Or sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert. The estimated cost of imprisoning these 3,278 people for life–rather than for a more reasonable period, one more proportionate to the crime–is calculated to be 1.78 billion dollars.

Sequester that, Boehner!

As the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary said, “I need to keep predators in these big old prisons, not dying old men.”

This is flat-out insane. It is wasteful of lives and money, and appallingly inhumane. If we read about similar practices in another country, we’d condemn that system (and smugly congratulate ourselves for our own moral superiority).

We’re exceptional, all right. And evidently incapable of shame.


  1. Yes… some of these crazy laws are WRITTEN by the folks who run the prisons to keep them full. Free Markets at work? Lock up humans for fun and profit? This needs to change. Tim Allen was almost one of these people locked up for life. What an awful injustace and waste of lives and treasure.

  2. The politicians who advocate this sort of evil shouldn’t debate serious folks like Sheila who will talk rationally and with quiet outrage. They would have too much opportunity to be self-righteous. These situations are so incredible that they are perfect for ridicule. This is material for Steven Colbert and John Stewart who, when they finish, people will say what they need to say: This isn’t just a minor problem of government. We, ourselves, have perpetrated a horror, a rotten system that destroys the society as well as the perpetrators, and we need to change it before it becomes part of our permanent history.

  3. Justice in our court system got lost years ago; no reflection on you or your career choice Sheila, but too many attorneys are only in it for money. They also delay, get continuances which fill court calendars till victims and witnesses tire of going nowhere. Why do drug possessions warrant longer sentences than murder and manslaughter in some cases? Why do child molesters get short sentences and brief times required to register as a sex offender? That should be a life-long requirement. My very small neighborhood has 5 child molesters in the length of 6 blocks and there is a violent sexual predator living 1 block from me, the rapist across the street moved months ago – thankfully. These criminals are among the lowest life-forms and certainly should spend more time in prison than someone in possession of drugs. The older hotels and motels that house dozens of these criminals should post warnings for travelers who stop for the night. But…criminal’s civil rights are protected and possible victims cannot be warned for what someone might or might not do.

    Regarding the case put before people acting as the judge; why would he believe the many who were actually in possession of drugs, no matter what they testified to, and sentence the one person who had no drugs to a longer mandatory sentence? Regarding sentencing; why is a life sentence NOT a life sentence but has a possible/probable parole date. How does a convicted felon qualify for “good time” to be released early when they were sentenced to a specific amount of time. Why, when criminals are released and told to stay away from their victims, do they receive the address of the victim but victims are not allowed the parolee’s address to know where to avoid? It is a violation of the criminal’s civil rights to have their address or workplace known by previous victims. Does any of that make sense and is anything about that situation providing justice for victims?

  4. This practice began the day the Civil War ended. Southerners were determined to preserve their advantages of free black labor. This they accomplished through the courts. Most public buildings, throughout the midwest and northeast, were built with brick made by free black prison labour in Birmingham Alabama. This lasted well into the 20th century. When the ’60s Rights movement brought that to a halt, new methods had to be invented to make money through the courts. Voila! The war on drugs. Every president and politician since Nixon ‘ I’m not a crook’ signed on to this travesty. We have to be hard on drugs. Translated: We have to pay the rich to imprison our kids. Don’t blame them. Juries could stop it tomorrow.

  5. Suggestion; to kill two birds (jailbirds, that is) with one stone, deport all known illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. This will ease the overcrowded prison system, slow or stop early release of dangerous criminals, begin resolving the illegal immigrant overload and save unknown millions in tax dollars providing them with housing, food, clothing, medical and dental care, while others work to support them along with their own families – this is an additional burden on the working class in this country.

    We are certainly exceptional in our limited thinking regarding the entire legal system here…if the powers that be think about it at all.

  6. We could afford to give inmates a college education for what we spend on prisoners and it would be money much better spent.

  7. With education in this state, legislators are no longer rewarding teachers for getting better educated because you can’t directly measure the impact of being better educated, showing that kids are learning more as a result. But they spend obscene amounts of money to hold people in jails (in what is being shown as inhumane conditions) and never consider whether anything good is happening as a result. I don’t think we need a whole lot more evidence to show that our legislators aren’t our best and brightest.

    Before moving into a state, folks need to look at the state laws passed in the last ten years and ask if they have contributed to the common good and made the state a better place to live for the most vulnerable. If that happened, when that process was over, our population might rival Wyoming.

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