Throw Away the Key: Why America Is Turning Away From Long Drug Sentences

Once a popular "tough-on-crime" campaign promise, mandatory minimums are losing favor with politicians, the public—and even federal prosecutors.

(Photo: Giorgio Fochesato/Getty Images)

A former journalist for the Associated Press and the Miami Herald, she reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week and the Financial Times.

Karen Garrison fainted in the courtroom when a jury convicted her twin sons of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine in 1998 on the testimony of a drug dealer.

Then came the sentences: The 25-year-olds, graduates of Howard University who had no prior offenses and maintain their innocence, were sentenced to 15½ and 19½ years in prison under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realize people were being treated like that, the prejudice against black people,” said Garrison, now an activist who hosts an online radio show for inmates and their families. “It was so unfair. The law should be fair.”

Mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses, three-strikes laws, life without parole, prison for parole violations—these “tough on crime” sentencing policies that have prevailed over the past 30 years have made the United States the world’s leading incarcerator.

Some 2.2 million people were behind bars in 2012, or one in every 31 American adults, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice report released last month. That ratio skyrockets for African-American men, who are six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites, and Latinos, who are 2.5 times more likely.

We’re seeing the most forward momentum in probably 15 years, and for the first time in history, the Department of Justice is supporting mandatory minimum sentencing reform.

But political will to revamp the lock-'em-up system is gathering steam. Both Democrats and Republicans signed on to federal sentencing reform bills introduced last fall, and 19 states have overhauled mandatory minimum drug laws in recent years. Even President Obama highlighted the issue last month when he commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses, three serving life without parole, saying they’d been sentenced under an “unfair system.”

Public will is also changing: California voters overwhelmingly decided to dilute the state’s “Three Strikes” law in 2012 so that only violent offenses would be eligible for the high-penalty third “strike.”

“We’re really at a watershed moment,” said Molly Gill, legal director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group. “We’re seeing the most forward momentum in probably 15 years, and for the first time in history, the Department of Justice is supporting mandatory minimum sentencing reform.”

A large factor driving the turnaround—and a key impetus of conservative support for sentencing reform—is fiscal. The recent recession exposed how much governments were spending on prisons at a time when schoolteachers were being laid off in droves. For instance, it costs taxpayers $21,000 to $33,000 a year per federal prisoner, depending on security level.

“We’re pouring enormous amounts of money into a system that doesn’t work—people are cycling in and out of prison,” said Niaz Kasravi, criminal justice director for the NAACP. “We need to begin talking more deeply and meaningfully about what’s right as punishment.”

Reform efforts have so far largely focused on nonviolent drug mandatory minimums, a holdover from the 1980s crack cocaine scourge. Mandatory minimums have long been criticized as one-size-fits-all penalties that take away a judge’s discretion to fit the punishment to the crime.

New York has seen one of the biggest results from overhauling drug sentencing. After it repealed most mandatory minimums in favor of rehab programs, its prison population fell by 20 percent from 1999 to 2009.

But overall, reform results are small. The nation’s prison population fell by 1.8 percent in 2012 from the year prior, the third consecutive year of minute declines, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Activists say more needs to be done and more quickly. Advocacy and research group The Sentencing Project calculated that at the current pace, it would take 88 years for the nation’s prison population to revert to its 1979 level.

A crucial area that needs to be addressed is life sentences, said Nazol Ghandnoosh, research analyst for The Sentencing Project, noting that one in nine prisoners is a lifer.

Not only are senior prisoners more expensive to house because they typically require more medical treatment, but their probability of recidivism if they are released is low. Nevertheless, political will to address life sentences remains minimal.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep people in prison until they’re very old and age out of the possibility of committing crimes,” Ghandnoosh said.

Advocates are cautiously optimistic that both Capitol Hill and statehouses will enact more sentencing reform measures this year, but they note that the improving economy may reduce the motivation in some states to enact meaningful overhauls, while at the federal level, congressional gridlock could hold things up.

In the meantime, Karen Garrison continues her radio show, “Mommie Activist and Sons.” Her sons were released several years early, thanks to amended laws that reduced their terms.

“These mandatory minimum minimums need to go,” said Garrison, 60. “Millions of people are in jail, and kids are running around with no idea how it is to have Mommy and Daddy around. We need to be building schools and communities; that’s the solution.”

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