In 1984 the Sentencing Reform Act was passed into legislation introducing mandatory sentencing to the criminal justice system. Essentially this means that a committee got together and discussed different crime violations and decided on a non-negotiable amount of time an offender will have to spend behind bars no matter what. Outlined by FAMM, a sentencing and prison policies reform organization here is the problem, “Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to give all offenders convicted of a certain crime the same punishment — regardless of whether it fits the crime or the offender or is necessary to keep the public safe. Judges are not allowed to consider any special facts or unique circumstances, the offender’s role, the person’s motive or profit, whether someone was actually injured, and whether the person is likely to reoffend or can be rehabilitated. Mandatory minimum sentences result in lengthy, excessive sentences for many people, leading to injustices, prison crowding, high costs for taxpayers — and less public safety.” The bottom line, a squeaky clean record won’t gain you redemption or a lighter sentence just a hope that additional time won’t be added.
In a world where we grew up learning at a young age that everybody makes mistakes and that our mistakes should be used as learning tools, how is that measurable without taking each man and woman’s personal merit into consideration? How does one determine just how long it will take to rehabilitate from a particular crime without taking one’s record of conduct into consideration? Instead of the harshness scaring people from making particular decisions, it has led to a sense of hopelessness and recidivism. Predetermined sentencing has already determined how long a person will be away from their homes and families no matter what. What does that do to the psyche? How motivated would you be to display good behavior when you already know it won’t make a difference between you remaining in cell hell or reentering society anytime soon? Over time, are the chances greater to obtain a useful skill or trade or become more knowledgeable about criminal activity?
In a 2017 Washington Post article in regard to mandatory sentencing, it stated, “Mandatory minimums have swelled the federal prison population and led to scandalous racial disparities. They have caused untold misery at great expense. And they have not made us safer.” Research for the article about sentencing also concluded that, “They harm the 5 million children who have or have had a parent in prison — including one in nine black children. And they wreak economic devastation on poor communities. Studies have found, for example, that formerly incarcerated employees make 10 to 40 percent less money than similar workers with no history of incarceration and that the probability of a family being in poverty increases by almost 40 percent when a father is imprisoned.” This is a current battle being fought so, what can be done to help show support in opposing this law? How can you help to push towards reform and reconnecting families? Here are 10 actions and solutions presented by Transforming the System Organization, that should be advocated for to reach implementation to encourage fair sentences:
Congress, and state and local legislatures, should repeal “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which limit access to parole and reductions in the amount of time that a person convicted of an offense serves, and eliminate habitual offender laws, including three-strikes laws that often result in overly harsh sentences.
Congress, and state and local legislatures should repeal mandatory minimum sentences and shorten sentence lengths across the board.
Legislatures should pass laws that encourage the use of alternatives to incarceration such as diversion programs, community service, and/or probation, where incarceration would otherwise be required. Incarceration should generally be avoided for less serious offenses and alternatives to incarceration should be incorporated into sentencing.
Congress, and state and local legislatures, should prohibit the imposition of jail or prison time for alleged failure to appear, or failure to pay fines, to ensure that individuals are not being incarcerated for missing a court date.
The United States Sentencing Commission should revise the Sentencing Guidelines to incorporate additional alternatives to incarceration and lower sentences. The Guidelines should require that judges review bench cards with appropriate alternatives to incarceration.
Congress, and state and local legislatures, should publicly adopt a stated goal of cutting incarceration in half by 2030 to encourage smarter sentences, a goal of JustLeadership USA.
State governments, judicial ethics organizations, Congress, and state and local legislatures should provide details on judicial sentencing determinations, disaggregated by race, religion, sex, gender, gender identity/expression, age, housing status, sexual orientation, HIV status, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration status, national origin, and religious affiliation.
State governments, judicial ethics organizations, Congress, and state and local legislatures should require regular and routine training programs for judges on implicit bias and educate judges on their role in reducing mass incarceration. This training should include tools to reduce bias such as bench cards, which provide judges with short questions and guidelines to consider during judicial proceedings, particularly before sentencing individuals.
The Administration should prioritize judicial appointments and focus on appointing judges who represent diverse sectors within the legal industry, particularly those with public defense and public interest backgrounds. Community members should support the election of judges who express a commitment to reversing mass incarceration and to adopting fair sentencing practices.
Federal and state judges should refrain from placing individuals in contempt of court for civil fees or fines. In the event that courts do elect to place individuals in contempt for this conduct, it should only be done after the court has determined that the individual has the actual financial means to pay the fees or fines.
Written by: Sharia Legette
For more information about this issue review the following works: