The Common Good
August 2013

Untying the Hands of Justice

by Molly M. Gill | August 2013

Mandatory minimum sentences are both irrational and unjust.

THE UNITED STATES has more than 2.3 million prisoners, a higher number than any other country. How did we become the world’s leading jailer? One of the main culprits: Mandatory sentences.

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Visiting those in prison and giving Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents are only two steps toward fulfilling Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). It’s time for the church to get serious about criminal sentencing reform—particularly, the reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lock up so many people for so long with so little benefit to society.

The explosion in state and federal prison populations and costs began in the 1980s with the so-called war on drugs. Lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by lawmakers are the primary weapon in that “war.” Judges have no choice but to apply these automatic, non-negotiable sentences of five, 10, or 20 years or even life in prison without parole. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime or the offender, protects the public, or leads to rehabilitation is irrelevant.

The results are unsurprising: irrational sentences, $80 billion annually in prison costs, and horrifically overcrowded prisons. States as varied as Georgia, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, California, and Michigan have confronted the reality of unsustainable prison budgets by repealing mandatory minimum sentences or creating “safety valve” exceptions that let judges go below the mandated punishment if the facts and circumstances warrant it. During this wave of reforms, crime has dropped to historic lows.

But Congress has not followed the example of these forward-thinking states. The federal prison system is operating at 140 percent of its capacity. Half of its prisoners are nonviolent and low-level drug offenders; many would be better served with cost-effective drug treatment, more appropriate sentences, or even strict supervision in the community. Imprisoning them consumes a full quarter of the federal Justice Department’s entire crime-fighting budget. Funds that could protect us with more cops on the street or better anti-terrorism tactics are instead spent on incarcerating for decades many people who aren’t dangerous or violent.

The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would allow judges to give offenders less prison time than the mandatory sentence if certain factors justify it. For example, a judge could give an offender a seven-year sentence instead of the 10-year mandatory sentence if the judge finds that doing so won’t endanger the public or would avoid an absurd result (such as punishing a small-time drug seller as if he or she were a kingpin). Both the Left (the ACLU) and the Right (Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform) have endorsed this modest reform. The bill should muster bipartisan support: It’s just common sense to permit courts to save our scarce prison resources for the most violent and hardened criminals.

Some churches and the National Association of Evangelicals are already supporting the bill and asking Congress to scale back mandatory minimum sentences. But too many Christians still endorse over-the-top sentences with “do the crime, do the time” or “eye for an eye” mantras. People who break the law deserve punishment, but the Bible limits it: It’s an eye for an eye, not a leg for an eye or a life for an eye. Mandatory minimum sentences too often require judges to take far more than is due. Passing the Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges to punish enough, but not too much. Christians should champion this first step in sentencing reform. Our duty to care for prisoners extends far beyond the prison gates, all the way to the ballot box and the halls of Congress. 

Molly M. Gill is the government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (www.famm.org).

Image: Hand in jail, sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

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