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Federal Sentencing Minimums: How the Federal Government Perpetuates Injustice

In 2015, President Obama was the subject of harsh criticism among conservatives for commuting the sentences of nearly four dozen offenders serving lengthy sentences in federal prison. Who were these people? Why did the President intervene? And most importantly, can and should anything be done to prevent the need for Presidential intervention in these kinds of cases going forward?

These individuals were convicted in federal court for non-violent drug-related offenses. Because of mandatory sentencing minimums passed by Congress in the 1980s and ‘90s, these people were serving longer sentences than some convicted murderers and rapists. One of them was Alton Mills, a Chicago resident who had injured no one and had never spent a day in prison prior to being issued a life sentence mandated by sentencing minimums set by politicians in Washington DC. These laws were implemented by well-intentioned federal officials who sought to protect our nation’s young people from the scourge of drugs, and, ironically, to eliminate racial bias in sentencing. But now that they’re in place, it has become apparent that they are deeply flawed. As so often happens when the federal government becomes involved, these laws have actually exacerbated the problems they were meant to solve.

According to American Progress, one in three black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point during his lifetime. Federal data indicates that blacks represent triple the population of federal prison inmates as compared to their proportion of the general population. Federal sentencing minimums compound this problem, imposing even lengthier sentences while offering no possibility of parole. Extended periods of incarceration leave the offender disadvantaged in the job market upon their release from prison. 

The impact of federal sentencing minimums is not only felt by men. The impact on families can be catastrophic. Children are deprived of the benefit of having their fathers present in their lives, and their mothers are left to support the family and raise children alone for extended periods of time, increasing the likelihood that the family will fall into poverty. Some women are pressured to participate in crimes by a romantic partner, and are sentenced just as harshly as the real perpetrator for what only amounts to peripheral involvement. This leaves children doubly disadvantaged as both of their parents are incarcerated. If they are lucky, there are caring extended family members able and willing to make the long-term commitment to raise them. Others are thrown into the child welfare system.

Judges have described these mandates as “cruel and unusual punishment.” In many cases, treatment is the far superior course of action, but judges’ hands are tied by federal mandate. Law enforcement and judges alike want to see sentencing reforms that allow them to use their good judgement to allow for individual and extenuating circumstances. Congress has taken the initial steps to modify federal sentencing minimums, but in this Presidential election year, the parties are even more polarized than usual and the legislation has stalled.

The havoc federal sentencing minimums wreak on American families and minority communities is an excellent example of what happens to everyday Americans when government officials are too quick to cut corners on one of our bedrock principles, the separation of powers. By passing federal sentencing minimums, Congress has invaded the judiciary, replacing a judge who is able to consider individual circumstances and mitigating factors for one-size-fits all formulas created by people with little, if any, experience in criminal justice. Now that we’ve seen the disastrous effects of this move, Congress is too polarized and there are too many competing interests to muster the political will to walk back the error. State legislatures are far less divided and are able to deal with these issues in a far more responsive manner.

These 46 people were fortunate enough to have a President willing to intervene on their behalf. The next American caught up in the federal net will probably not be so lucky. But the good news is that the States are part of the original design of checks and balances in our government. When the political will does not exist on Capitol Hill, when the Supreme Court is satisfied to nibble around the edges, when the Oval Office is occupied by an unsympathetic President, an Article V Convention to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government can repair the tattered fabric of the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment all Americans should enjoy, regardless of race.

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