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January 20, 2006 - Oakville Beaver (CN ON)

Opinion: Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences Don't Work

By Von Jeppesen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Ah, the joy of opening the mail box. Usually a bill or two waiting, the occasional government cheque, even the possibility of a postcard from a distant cousin visiting Pago Pago.

I didn't get any cheque, and surprisingly no bills. Not even that postcard from Pago Pago. What I did get though, was a pamphlet from local Conservative Terence Young.

Alright Terence, I'm ready to listen, so lay it on me baby. So I opened the pamphlet and first off: Accountability in Government.

Alright Mr. Young, no arguments there. Safer Streets was next with the first bullet (no pun intended) being "Mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving guns." Oh no Terence, please tell me this was a misprint? The dreadful MMS?

You may be unaware Mr. Young, but our American counterparts already impose "mandatory minimum sentences" for drug offences, and the effects have been devastating.

In fact, many states are proposing legislation to abolish mandatory minimum sentencing.

A recent study done by the American Bar Association, Justice Kennedy Commission went on to urge "a fundamental change of course toward less reliance on incarceration and greater attention to more effective alternatives.

The system is broken

"Now we need to get smarter. We can no longer sit by as more and more people -- particularly in minority communities -- are sent away for longer and longer periods of time while we make it more and more difficult for them to return to society after they serve their time. The system is broken. We need to fix it."

The report also concluded that the "many get-tough approaches to crime don't work and some, such as mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug offenders, are unfair and should be abolished.

"Laws requiring mandatory minimum prison terms leave little room to consider differences among crimes and criminals.

"More people are behind bars for longer terms, but it is unclear whether the country is safer as a result."

The Justice Fellowship, an "online community of Christians working to reform the criminal justice system" also agreed, noting that "Mandatory sentencing laws have proven to be ineffective," as "they limit a judge's ability to consider the actual facts of the case.

"The mandatory sentencing policy is also the least cost-effective."

The problem is so frustrating that scores of federal judges have refused to hear drug cases in protest of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and that Supreme Court Justices and a Chief Justice, all of whom are Republican appointees "have also found mandatory minimums to be a flawed sentencing system," and even going as far as calling them "imprudent, unwise and often an unjust mechanism."

A Conservative criminologist John DiIulio, once a backer of long mandatory sentences, recently wrote in support of the abolition of MMS, going on to say that "With mandatory minimums, there is no real suppression of the drug trade, only episodic substance-abuse treatment of incarcerated drug-only offenders, and hence only the most tenuous crime-control rationale for imposing prison terms mandatory or otherwise on any of them."

Not only have they been ineffective in stopping drug crime, "mandatory minimums also disproportionately affect minorities."

The average drug sentence for African/Americans is now 49 per cent higher than sentences for the same offense for whites.

Finally, the most fitting, was by the Elizabeth Fry Society. They noted that "The new mandatory minimum sentence of four years imprisonment for offences involving a firearm provides an example, as do numerous Private Member's Bills that propose new minimum sentences for offences and offenders that have been the subject of media-induced panic. The new mandatory minimum sentence was introduced for offences involving weapons with little public debate or justification, as it was buried in the gun control legislation. It was intended to appease gun owners by punishing severely the "real criminals" - those who use guns in the course of committing other crimes.

"These minimum sentences, just like the mandatory minimum for murder, are essentially politically expedient solutions to grave social problems that have moral as well as legal implications."

Their No. 1 recommendation?

"Abolish the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment for first and second degree murder, and all other mandatory minimum sentences."

Fighting the war on drugs

You see Mr. Young, the U.S. has been fighting a "war on drugs" for over 20 years. Since then, drugs are of higher quality, are cheaper on the streets and the rate of incarceration in the United States (702 inmates per 100,000 residents) continues to be the highest in the world. Needless to say, they have been fighting a losing battle. Drugs, guns, gangs it is all connected. It should not be a shock to see that gangs + drugs = GUNS.

As Sterling Johnson, Jr., a special narcotics prosecutor for New York City once wrote, "Drugs are to organized crime what gasoline is to the automobile."

As long as we keep drugs on the black market, we will continue to give them a means to buy things such as weapons. The time to stop being politically correct when dealing with drugs has long passed, it's time to actually start changing a failed system. A failed war.

I'll leave you with the words of the Justice Kennedy Commission's chair, Steven Saltzburg:

"For too long we have focused almost exclusively on locking up criminals. We also need to look at the other side of the coin: what happens when they get out. We have to remember that roughly 95 per cent of the people we lock up eventually get out. Our communities will be safer and our corrections budgets less strained if we better prepared inmates to successfully re-enter society without returning to a life of crime."

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