February 28, 2007

My Soapbox: The Madness of Mandatory Minimums

“Republicans have incarcerated millions of nonviolent drug law offenders and wasted tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, yet drugs are readily available and the harms associated with them continue to mount,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Democrats need to step up to the plate and prove to Americans that they can do what Republicans couldn’t do: reduce the harms associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs.”

I never thought I would be quoting a Democrat and rallying behind them so staunchly in a bipartisan cause… but here I am to tell you that on Mandatory Minimum Sentencing… I draw the line in the sand FAR from where most Republicans do. I don’t believe sentencing a man to 55 years behind bars for illegal drug use (OR distribution) on a first time offense is humane or benefits society in any way. While I believe that second and third offenses should levy hefty sentencing, first time offenders are usually the most “correctable” prisoners in the system. Giving them harsh sentences only breaks them and makes them more like the people who deserve to be in prison. Unlike most conservatives, I think the most progress we can make with the “War on Drugs” is to make them legal and regulate them. No more sentencing nightmares. No more meth labs in people’s basements and little kids overdosing because the thug down the street got them hooked. No more drug Lords trucking cocaine across the borders. Drugs are awful and I don’t agree with taking them unless you HAVE to for medical reasons… but all our “best” efforts to keep them off the streets and keep drug pushers behind bars have NOT succeeded.

Once upon a time, before I partook of the “knowledge of good and evil” in our country, I thought just like you do. Criminals are awful – lock them up and throw away the key. Those were the days before I knew anything about our justice system first hand… and before I ever set foot in the visitor’s center of a state or federal prison. My blissful ignorance was shattered in the early 2000’s when a family member that I cared for was taken to jail and sentenced to more than a decade of prison time for a drug-related crime. The only problem was that this family member never did drugs… and never sold drugs… but was caught up at the wrong place, in the wrong time (and taken apart by an evil assistant DA who wanted a plug for her resume). Suddenly the black and white of criminal intent and fair punishment became a hazy grey. Where justice should have prevailed and common sense should have guided… there were only harsh cookie-cutter sentencing guidelines (including Mandatory Minimums). The judge was forced (despite hesitation and questions as to the validity of the case) to issue a lengthy sentence for my relative. The fact that this person was an upstanding member of society, a Christian, directly involved with community services that helped children STAY OFF DRUGS, and otherwise supported by hundreds of friends and family who WROTE to the judge and came to the trial was disregarded entirely.

My faith in our justice system faded like a mist as the judge read off the sentence. It was as if time stood still. I couldn’t imagine more than a decade in prison. I was about to learn as much about our “correctional” institutions as I had learned about our “justice” system. I have witnessed first hand the blight of the current prison system. I know now that much of the punishment that is dolled out at sentencing is left unspoken. It is the family of the prisoner who is the real looser. Not only has one of the main bread-winners been taken from the family, but the father or mother figure has been removed from the children and the financial punishment phase has only just begun. Families are forced to travel long distances, fork out money for hotels and commissary (contrary to popular belief, prisoners still pay for their personal belongings in prison… underwear, stamps, snacks and bathroom goods are not paid for by tax dollars). Phone calls are available at a high long-distance rates (payable to FBP) for those who have family that are still willing to support them. Country club prisons do not exist (at least not that I have ever seen). Prisoners must work (even if they only make .26 cents an hour working for prison industries). They are not allowed to lie around and “Bass Fish” as some ignorant journalists insist. In fact, many of the lovely “ponds” or “lakes” on prison property are actually sewage reservoirs. I know more than I ever wanted to know about prison just from reading letters and visiting with my relative when I can go. I know that many of the prisoners are forgotten and abandoned by their family and without any visitors or money to buy necessities. While it is hard for me to see my relative suffering this long and cruel mandatory punishment, I can’t imagine how it would be for those who do not have any support at all.

What I have learned through this personal experience is something I don’t wish any American to learn the hard way. In no way do I want you to believe that my passion and empathy for prisoners and their families makes me soft on crime. You don’t have to be a proponent of harsh sentencing to believe that crime is wrong. I just understand now that there is more to the case than meets the press-release. A judge should be allowed to use his God-given intellect to craft a sentence that will be fitting for each individual crime. Sentencing guidelines should be just that – GUIDELINES. Our judicial branch should be the ones who judge… not our legislators. Mandatory Minimums are just all-around BAD for society.

I never really thought about criminals before… other than making sure my doors were locked at night, keeping away from the bad parts of town, and shaking my head in dismay during the evening news. I was oblivious to the realities of the justice system and had never heard of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing. I can honestly say that I have compassion for those in prison now. I don’t think I ever did before. Maybe the whole experience with my family member has been used of God to serve a greater purpose for His kingdom on earth. I know that my relative is a stronger Christian today than before incarceration – even though there is every reason for that person and their family to feel slighted. The same criminals that I would have locked up forever (before I had given them any serious thought) are now people I have had the chance to meet. I have met a few of their families. I have met a few of their children. I have participated in Angel Tree (which seeks to serve prisoner’s families for summer camps and at Christmas). These people have faces and names. They are not just numbers, statistics, and ideas.

I understand that there are many people deserving of prison. I am a full believer in allowing a person to suffer a penalty for their crime. But shouldn’t the punishment FIT the crime? I am extremely hard-nosed when it comes to violent crimes and even support giving the death penalty in some cases. Yet… in all actuality, I do not feel that our current system is addressing violence effectively, either. Our “War on Drugs” has chocked our prisons full of non-violent offenders and there is no longer room to house the criminals who truly deserve to be there. A murderer or rapist should serve much longer sentences than first time drug offenders. That isn’t the case, sadly. Rapists and murderers are released to roam the streets after maddeningly short periods of incarceration. Over 80% of the people today in prisons are there for non-violent drug-related crimes. An increasing majority of them are first-time offenders. Mandatory Minimum sentencing has taken the justice out of the justice system. Judges have resigned, spoken out, and tried to fight against this crisis for the past few decades. The few who are left in the American public who have not yet been influenced by the TRUTH of what goes on in our courts and prisons are too busy with their own lives to worry about the unlucky or guilty ones. I have to admit that it was true for me.

Today, I read about this issue because it is close to my heart. I read stories like these:

Tammi Bloom
Alva Mae Groves
Greg Steven Cooke
Douglas Lindsay
Sharvonne McKinnon
Daisy Diaz
Sabrina Giles

… and I come away with a completely different view of our justice system than the ones they teach about in Government classes at school. The reality of this issue is that the people who are sentenced are not the only ones who are suffering because of this. The punishment is being given also to the families of those sentenced, and to society as a whole. I just do not see how this failing system is justified in any sense. I do not see how we can stick our head in the sand and allow these injustices to continue any longer. I want to really BE a COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATIVE. That is what Jesus was. It would do us all well to remember to temper our justice with MERCY.

Psalm 68:6 - God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

Psalm 146:7 - He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free

Psalm 79:11 - May the groans of the prisoners come before you; by the strength of your arm preserve those condemned to die.

Hebrews 13:3 - Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Isaiah 42:6-8

6 "I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

There are a number of sites and articles that can help you figure out what you can do to help. I hope you won’t just pass this blog post up and do nothing about it. The only way things will ever change for our nation is if we make our voices heard.

Here are a few resources and articles that may help you research this if you are just starting out:
Prisons Bursting at the Seams: the Effects of Mandatory Sentences
Congressman Sensenbrenner Making Name as Drug War Extremist
Righting a Wrong by Hillbilly White Trash

Here are a few blogs/websites to keep an eye on:
FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) ~ be sure to check out the legislative alert area of their website!
Rose Lear
A Dusty Frame
Sentencing Project
Corrections Sentencing
Stop the Drug War

* I have been intentionally vague as to the personal information about my incarcerated family member per their family’s request.

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Rhonda said...

You know I agree with you. (well, not so sure about legalizing drugs, but everything else) I am deeply ashamed of the Republican party because of their stand on this.

Thanks for the links. I'll be checking them out.


Summer said...

Wow, I'm a bit shocked that I agree with you on this issue. Isn't ti beautiful when a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat and find common ground. :)

Sprittibee said...

Rhonda... Well, I figure legalizing drugs is the only thing we haven't done yet. Maybe we should give it a try. I think those who smoke, drink and do drugs will eventually reap their own "reward"... and we might as well pour the billions of dollars we spend in prisons on drug treatment programs and faith based programs that help people get OFF of drugs to HEAL them rather than spending it to lock them up and destroy their families.

Mama Chaos - Yes, it is nice when we can all come together on certain issues and agree. Thanks for the comment. I think we would find that we have more in common than either of us thinks if we all sat down and actually discussed issues rather than political spin. The top dogs know that if they ever really got honest and told everyone the truth... it would hurt the "party platform" quite a bit. I am a conservative, but I don't consider myself part of any political party. I don't like any of them, to tell you the truth. I am sick of people not keeping promises on both sides of the fence.

Anonymous said...

Actually the problem with drugs is that is moving and involving a lot of money and as usual "money rules"..and as usual who pays are always the "little fishes".
Last year, a beautiful ironic italian program tv, made a drug test (without their knowledge!!) at some italian politicians and a lot of them got positive..!!
And I would bet that the kind of busy life politicians (of many country)live could not be the same with some white help..but of course,we would never know it..

Alexandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra said...

From a purely impersonal practical angle, where do they think all that money is going to come from to build the new jails and prisons, and to hire new correctional officers?! There is already overcrowding, it will cost millions. Maybe they'll borrow it from the education budget?! ;)

Sprittibee said...

Raf - Yes, even our big time politicians and other people who seem to be above the law are suspected (and even caught sometimes) doing drugs. Burns me up that they all get off with a slap on the wrist (if that) while the little poor folk are the ones sitting in an iron cell for 20-55 years.

Alexandra - You would be amazed at how much money it takes to run the prison system in this country. You said millions and I had to chuckle. Try Billions... with a B.

Here's a snip from an article I found online:

By 2011 one in every 178 U.S. residents will live in prison, according to a new report released today by the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011 projects that by 2011 America will have more than 1.7 million men and women in prison, an increase of more than 192,000 from 2006. That increase could cost taxpayers as much as $27.5 billion over the next five years beyond what they currently spend on prisons.

Want to know what the prisons already cost us? (Hang on to your seat...)

State prisons: more than $30 billion annually

Feds: budgeted $5 billion (only 182,000 of America's 2 Million inmates)

... and everyone is worried about the money spent on the War in Iraq?! I've got an idea of how we can make some quick cash: let the first time non-violent offenders of drug related crimes OUT of JAIL (send them to rehab instead - on their own dime!). Hello people. I mean really, common sense - use your head.

Alexandra said...

Great idea about sending them to rehab, but then someone has to monitor them to make sure they do it which means more money to adult community corrections.

There no way around spending more, but prison sentences for first time offenders is the worst as far as spending. Here in Va. we have a First Offender sentence which has done wonders for overcrowding, and has given a lot of folks a second chance. They get a suspended conviction/sentence for one year with one year probation and drug treatment. If they mess up, they go back to court, and can get convicted, and resentenced. You can only get this sentence with a possession charge, not for drug selling.

I worked in adult community corrections for 13 years. I loved it, but we needed more officers and more money. Our caseloads were sometimes over 200! Who could be supervised well with this type of caseload! The pay was stinky, but you don't get into that type of work to get rich...it's all about serving people and your community.

Interesting topic Sprittibee. :)



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