The New York Times has a sad article about the costs of mandatory sentencing, beginning with the case of Stephanie George.
George was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Everyone agrees that, at best, she was a bit player joined to the distribution by the behavior of her child's father. So how did she end up with a life sentence? How did it happen that her children have grown up without their mother?
Whatever the truth of the testimony against her, it certainly benefited the other defendants. Providing evidence to the prosecution is one of the few ways to avoid a mandatory sentence. Because the government formally credited the other defendants with “substantial assistance,” their sentences were all reduced to less than 15 years. Even though Mr. Dickey was the leader of the enterprise and had a much longer criminal record than Ms. George, he was freed five years ago.
Looking back on the case, Judge Vinson said such disparate treatment is unfortunately all too common. The judge, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who is hardly known for liberalism (last year he ruled that the Obama administration’s entire health care act was unconstitutional), says he still regrets the sentence he had to impose on Ms. George because of a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record.
“She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,” Judge Vinson said recently. “So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.
“The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that’s draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.”
The article is well worth a read. It shows how the country's massive increase in prison population has -- at least initially -- led to a decrease in crime. But it looks at how those benefits have decreasing marginal utility and come at a rather significant cost to the families of those who are sent away. It also shows how incarceration can lead to increased hardening of the convict.
Some changes are being made:
These changes are starting to be made in places. Sentences for some drug crimes have been eased at the federal level and in states like New York, Kentucky and Texas. Judges in Ohio and South Carolina have been given more sentencing discretion. Californians voted in November to soften their state’s “three strikes” law to focus only on serious or violent third offenses. The use of parole has been expanded in Louisiana and Mississippi. The United States Supreme Court has banned life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.
Stopping crime in a humane fashion is a difficult balance to strike. I'm glad that some people are working on it.