Cate D. Wisconsin

Afraid of Our Own People?

Minimum sentence requirements and the masses

The American justice system is one of the most overgrown in the world. This is a fact. Over 2.3 million people are confined within the maze of county, state, and federal prisons; one in five of those incarcerated are behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense. A large part of what drives this mass incarceration is mandatory sentence requirements, which were introduced with the Boggs Act of 1951. Mandatory minimums were introduced to eliminate sentencing disparities in factually similar cases; however, in modern times, the minimums are far out of touch with the crimes committed. Because ridding our system of mandatory minimums would be beyond difficult, and perhaps cause a return to subjective judging, I instead argue that mandatory minimums be lowered. This should be accomplished primarily through your support as President of the Justice Safety Valve Act, and your support of similar bills in the future.

Without extensive background knowledge, our justice system is completely unknowable. I’ve been lucky enough that we’ve been covering it in my Sociology class for a few weeks. Despite this, I’ve still barely scratched the surface. I doubt that anyone, including myself, can truly appreciate the scope of our overextended system without firsthand knowledge. What I have learned, however, has shocked me. 

Minimum sentence requirements are ridiculous. Often, minimum requirements vary from state to state. For example, in Kentucky, for simple possession first offenders can get two to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. However, in California, the same offense can get a fine of up to $500 and up to 180 days in jail. The justice system can no longer be considered fair if it treats the same crime so very differently depending on where it’s committed. Additionally, it is my belief that our current mandatory minimums are too harsh in most cases. For example, in federal court, a defendant who sold less than 10 kilograms of marijuana with a group of friends of five or more out of a garage that they rented receives a minimum sentence of 33-41 months in prison, even for a defendant with little or no criminal history. The minimums skyrocket with every previous offense the defendant was convicted of. That’s at least two and a half years of life wasted, and because defendants are often young, it can disrupt their lives for years to come. It’s pretty hard to attend college from inside a prison. These mandatory minimums laws are too harsh, unfair, and have been proven to be contributing to the overcrowding of our prisons. The Safety Valve Act gives some power back to the judges by allowing them to depart from the mandatory minimum, but only in limited circumstances, and the Act requires your support as President retain influence. 

Some might say without minimum sentence requirements, individual sentencing would be too subjective. They might argue that without them, the already well-documented differences in quality of lawyers and prosecutors might completely overwhelm the supposed fairness of our system. In other words, mandatory minimum sentences ensure that regardless of the wealth of the defendant, every convicted criminal receives at least the minimum sentence. This is true. Mandatory sentences do ensure that everyone gets at least the minimum. However, mandatory sentences are not appropriate when the sentence is too harsh for the crime. Indeed, in the case of our drug laws, they are the anything but appropriate: they overcrowd our prisons, imprison too many of our youth, and contribute to the failing of our justice system. 

I urge you, as the United State’s next President, to support the Justice Safety Valve Act. But beyond that, consider what steps to take next. The mandatory minimums need to be lowered, and the Safety Valve Act is not an end-all. In fact, many more bills will be needed to amend this problem. You, as President, have the power to address this issue as few others can.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

-Cate Desens   

Sun Prairie High School

AP Lang and Comp 2

Advanced Placement Language and Composition students.

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