Throwing Away The Key

A recent article in The Economist has highlighted the moral bankruptcy of mandatory minimum sentencing in the United States.

[Over 3,200 people are] serving sentences of life without parole for non-violent crimes, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Around 79% of them were convicted of drug crimes. These include: having an unweighable amount of cocaine in a shirt pocket, selling $10-worth of crack to a police informant and mailing small amounts of LSD to fellow Grateful Dead fans. Property crimes that earned offenders a permanent home in prison include shoplifting three belts, breaking into an empty liquor store and possessing stolen wrenches.

A hefty 83% of such sentences were mandatory. That is, a state or federal law barred the judge from exercising any discretion (or indeed, common sense).

Furthermore, this reflects another endemic problem with the justice system: institutional racism.

Racial disparities among non-violent whole-lifers exceed even those of the prison system itself. Among federal prisoners, blacks are 20 times more likely to receive such sentences: they are 65% of the national total, compared with 18% for whites and 15% for Latinos. In some states, the numbers are yet more skewed: blacks are 91% of non-violent life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana, 79% in Mississippi and 68% in South Carolina.

In addition to the ethical problems, there are serious practical ones as well (which are all the more palpable given the strain that public finances are facing).

The ACLU estimates that life-without-parole sentences for [nonviolent] offenders add $1.8 billion to the cost of incarcerating those to whom they apply. Jennifer Turner, who wrote the ACLU’s study, says that the number of life-without-parole sentences (including those for violent crimes) is growing faster than life-with-a-chance-of-parole. In the past 20 years, it has quadrupled, even as violent crime has declined.

Long sentences have not made drugs harder to buy or Americans less likely to take them. Evidence that they reduce crime is skimpy; the vast sums spent on them would surely reduce crime more if spent instead on detective work, drug treatment and rehabilitation.

Then of course there is the horrific human consequences.

The cost to prisoners and their families, meanwhile, is impossible to calculate. “I’ve lost my son. I’ll never have grandchildren with him. He’ll never see the outside world,” says Ms Borg. She adds: “I can’t sleep. I can’t function. I’m 87 pounds. I look like a walking skeleton.”

While this is just a small fraction of America’s 2.3 million prisoners — many of whom are facing harsh sentences for minor drug offences — it should go without saying that every human life counts. Every single one of those people are losing their entire lives over small infractions and senseless technicalities. It is completely unjustifiable, whether from an ethical, economic, or practical point of view.

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