In an "Opinion" piece that appeared last week in The New York Times, former attorney general Eric Holder was clear in his conviction that individuals facing drug charges should be treated more humanely. Currently, even first-time offenders can receive more than 15 years in prison if caught with relatively small amount of illegal substances. Such sentences, Holder argued, "are disproportionate to the crimes."
The problem is not the fault of unusually cruel judges; indeed, judges often lack the authority to mete out fairer penalties. Rather, the issue is systemic. Namely, in their efforts to reduce the incidence of drug crimes, both state and federal governments have taken to imposing 'mandatory minimum' sentences for certain offenses. In Florida, for example, the possession of 201 grams of cocaine--less than half a pound--carries a minimum sentence of seven years; possession of 29 grams of opium carries a sentence of 25 years. The practice of mandatory minimums has created a bloated and dangerous prison system that damages many facets of society.
"The human and community costs are incalculable," Holder noted.
Now, the question is whether reform is possible.
Taxpayers shoulder an unnecessary burden
The federal prison system costs taxpayers roughly $80 billion a year. According to the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), about half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. And the situation in Florida is worse than in most of the country. Our state has the nation's third-largest prison population--we lag behind only California and Texas; the number of inmates has increased by 1,048% since 1970. Drug offenders account for an inordinate number of those behind bars.
So what's to be done? Holder, FAMM, and others propose what is essentially a two-pronged approach. Firstly, the mandatory minimums must be repealed, and judges empowered to hand down more appropriate sentences. Secondly, more funding ought to be delivered to treatment programs, which have proven capable of reducing recidivism.
Reform faces hurdles
Yet even as proposals to eradicate of mandatory minimums have been brought before both state and federal governments, it is uncertain whether such measures will succeed. Conservative lawmakers across the nation--including governors and senators--have expressed approval for the system as it is.
As such, those charged with crimes must rely on savvy lawyers to reduce the allegations they face and keep them from facing mandatory sentences in the first place.
How will it play out?
"The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end," Holder wrote. "The nation's lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes...on reform legislation. An opportunity like this comes once in a generation."
And if the opportunity is not seized, many will continue to spend that generation, and the next, behind bars.