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America’s Prison System Doesn’t Work: Can We Fix It?

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The numbers are discouraging: 1 in 28 American children has at least one parent in prison. Even though crime rates have dropped, our prison population has quadrupled; there are now about 2.4 million adults behind bars. It is costing us $80 billion a year to maintain our prison system. At one point, society thought that prison was about reform. We’ve all but dropped any pretense of reform; we’re just warehousing people.

Can we fix this?

One organization is trying. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) would like to see changes in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, many of which involve drug cases.

In 1990, Julie Stewart was public affairs director at the Cato Institute when she first learned of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Her brother had been arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State, had pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — had been sentenced to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but the mandatory minimum law left him no choice.

Motivated by her own family’s experience, Julie created Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991. Though her brother has long since left prison, has a beautiful family and a good job, Julie continues to lead FAMM in the fight for punishments that fit the crime and the offender.

Two senators, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee’s (R-Utah), would like to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, aimed at giving judges more discretion in sentencing for drug cases, such as the one described above. FAMM wants to educate people as to how mandatory sentencing works. Congress, not judges, have created mandatory sentencing laws. Judges literally use a manual to figure out what sentence must be handed down.

The FAMM website highlights several individuals that they believe are suffering from overly-harsh sentences. FAMM does not claim that any of these people are innocent, but that they have been given sentences that do not fit the crime, and in each case, the judge’s hands were tied.

Mandy Martinson is serving 15 years in federal prison for helping her dealer-boyfriend in exchange for feeding her methamphetamine addiction. Mandy’s judge, unable to go below the mandatory minimum, expressed his objection to the sentence stating: “The Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future.” Mandy was able to achieve sobriety and get her old job back before her trial. Nevertheless, taxpayers are spending $420,000 to incarcerate the first-time, nonviolent offender for the mandatory 15 years – 3 years longer than the boyfriend will spend behind bars.

[T]he judge was forced to give Mandy a mandatory minimum of 10 years for the conspiracy and possession charges, and a mandatory five-year consecutive term for the gun charge, for a total sentence of 15 years behind bars.

Since her conviction, Mandy has successfully completed numerous additional treatment courses and remained drug free. She has been certified to operate heavy equipment, is taking a horticulture class, and is teaching a course on The Purpose Driven Life. Mandy was selected to be a companion to prisoners on suicide watch. “It is very frustrating to think I may have so many years left in prison,” says Mandy. “I am making the most of my time here, though. I know change is coming. There are just way too many people like me incarcerated for way too long.”

Are sentences like this just and moral? Is prison reform something we are willing to take seriously? If our aim is to have a just society, there must be justice for all.

Read “The moral and political case for reforming the criminal justice system” at The Washington Post.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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