By Hannah Cornfield, a Fall 2013 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern
Why does “the land of the free” lock up more people than any other country in the world? A recent Senate hearing on mandatory minimums revealed that they are inherently unfair, produce a system of mass incarceration, increase racial disparities, are cost-ineffective and do not secure public safety.
A crowd lined up Wednesday morning outside the hearing room for the Senate Committee on the Judiciary to attend “Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences.” These sentences take a “one-size-fits-all” approach by requiring automatic prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain state and federal crimes, and removing any and all judicial discretion.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., chairman of the judiciary committee, expressed the need “to confront unsustainable growth of our federal prison system.” He said, “It is a problem Congress created, and a problem Congress can fix.”
According to Leahy, in the last 30 years, our federal prison population has soared by more than 700 percent, and we spend approximately $6.4 billion a year on federal prisons. And it gets worse. Not only are more than a quarter of federal offenders incarcerated from mandatory minimums, but 77.4 percent of them are from drug trafficking convictions, disproportionately Blacks and Latinos. While the majority of drug users and dealers nationwide are White, three-fourths of all people in prison from drug offenses are Black and Latino.
Interestingly, Leahy chose witnesses who were all identified as Republicans: Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ky., and Brett Tolman, shareholder of Ray Quinney & Nebeker. The witnesses explained that mandatory minimums target low-level offenders and people of color, are financially irresponsible, do not ensure public safety, inhibit any discretion on individual cases, and undermine the greater need for rehabilitation, rather than harsh punitive measures. Each witness agreed that the federal government needs to take its cues from the states, some of which are passing bipartisan legislation as successful alternatives to mandatory minimums.
Two bi-partisan pieces of legislation are currently on the table to reform the mandatory minimum sentencing policy. The Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Leahy and Paul, would create a broader set of guidelines for qualifying offenders to be relieved from mandatory minimum sentence, and would apply to all federal crimes requiring mandatory minimums. The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D. Ill., and Mike Lee, R. Utah, would modestly expand the current safety valve for drug offenses, lower some mandatory minimums for certain offenses and make retroactive the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act. Civil rights advocates urge the Senate to pass these bills as a necessary step to dismantle the racist structure of our criminal justice system, which causes mass incarceration, a byproduct of unjust sentencing practices. “Justice demands it,” Leahy said.
Concluding the hearing, relatives of those incarcerated from Mandatory Minimums stood with photos of their loved ones, personalizing the political environment.
“We can’t deal with statistics when we’re dealing with human beings,” Leahy said.