Balancing Fair Sentences with Public Safety in America

Criminal sentencing laws in America are in need of reform. This is especially true for mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which remove a judge’s discretion and require that defendants convicted of certain crimes be sentenced to prison terms of a minimum length. At the federal level, according to Arizona State University Law professor Erik Luna, “Federal mandatory minimums have existed throughout the nation’s history, stretching back to 1790.” But the number of crimes subject to mandatory minimum sentencing and the length of sentences have grown so much that “a broad array of conduct might be eligible for inexorable levels of punishment.”

The wave of mandatory minimum sentences enacted in the 1970s for drug and gun crimes was intended as a solution to the real problem of rising crime rates. Unfortunately, implementation became increasingly political, as taking a “tough on crime” stance became more popular with voters.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), observed in testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that “our modern criminal justice system has, since the mid-1980s, been addicted to using lengthy prison sentences to solve the vexing social, public safety and public health problems caused by drugs. These unduly long sentences have created more problems than they could ever hope to solve.”

In a blog post for the American Constitution Society, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, cites a 1991 study from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found mandatory minimums to be “ineffectual.” She also points out that “during the past 20 years, the U.S. Judicial Conference and the judges of the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeal that hear criminal cases have passed resolutions opposing mandatory minimum sentences.”

Reformers agree that sentencing reform is not about excusing bad behavior or giving overly light sentences to those who deserve punishment. It is about ensuring that the punishment is commensurate with the crime committed.

To address these issues, Julie Stewart, Nkechi Taifa, and CCPOA director of government affairs Stephen Walker will participate in a panel discussion on sentencing reform and public safety on Thursday, November 5, at the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice summit in New Orleans.

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