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.