Federal judge: "Mandatory sentences breed injustice"

The New York Times recently featured an article aptly entitled “Right on Crime,” a piece that chronicled the efforts of some political conservatives who advocate a shifting away from current harsh drug laws and sentencing in favor of what they deem to be a more humane and logical criminal justice system.

A federal judge and Ronald Regan appointee from Florida was quoted in that article as saying that, “Mandatory sentences breed injustice.” Judge Roger Vinson related to reporters the story of a woman he was forced to sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole on a federal crime charge relating to cocaine.

The woman’s wrongdoing in that matter was limited to her agreement with her dealer boyfriend that he could keep the drug in her home. Under the mandatory sentencing law and because the woman had prior drug convictions, Vinson had no recourse but to mete out the life sentence to the defendant, a single mother.

Ironically, the woman’s boyfriend has already served his time and was released from prison five years ago. Vinson says that such a skewed result is not starkly atypical with drug crimes, given that more experienced career dealers are better able, comparatively, to use inside information that might help them achieve reduced sentences.

Conversely, notes Vinson, “The small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.”

A University of Chicago economist, Steven Levitt, says that routinely imprisoning low-level offenders to life sentences makes the justice system unwieldy, ineffective and prohibitively costly. Moreover, say critics in referencing stories like the above cocaine conviction tale, it does nothing to cut back on the country’s drug-supply problem or deter the main actors in the chain.

There are currently more than two million people housed in America’s prisons and jails. Levitt says that a third of those inmates could be released immediately with no negative effect on crime. Indeed, he says that crime levels would likely decrease as a result.

And imagine the savings to American taxpayers incurred from not paying for the incarceration of nearly 700,000 people, coupled with the alternative uses to which those savings could be committed.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, “Draconian drug sentences cry out for reform,” Debra J. Saunders, Dec. 19, 2012