The answer is: mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Sadly, this man’s fate is more common than most people realize. A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union reveals that as of last year, at least 3,278 prisoners in the United States were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole after being convicted of non-violent drug offenses and/or property crimes.
According to the ACLU report, 80 percent of the nearly 3,300 life sentences were for non-violent drug offenses. Most of the remaining 20 percent of defendants had committed relatively minor property crimes. A New York Times article about the ACLU report gave examples of the some crimes that earned defendants life sentences. They include:
- Attempting to cash a stolen check
- Being the middle-man in a drug sale
- Possessing a crack pipe or other drug paraphernalia
Nearly any reasonable person can see that these types of offenses do not justify life in prison with no chance of parole. In fact, the majority of judges felt that way as well. Sadly, they were unable to use their own discretion because of habitual-offender and mandatory-minimum laws. This was the reality in more than 83 percent of cases mentioned above.
Mandatory minimums are dangerous because they rob judges of two crucial powers. The first is the power to deliver an appropriate sentence in full context of the crime and the defendant’s history. Second is the power to use the criminal justice system as a tool for rehabilitation rather than simple punishment. With a sentence of life in prison, talk of rehabilitation is essentially rendered moot.
America incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world, and mandatory minimums are a major contributing factor. If we truly want to be known as the land of the free, we must get rid of these destructive and unjust laws.
Source: New York Times, “Sentenced to a Slow Death,” Nov. 16, 2013