A Mandatory Mistake | Sojourners

A Mandatory Mistake

Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com
Ruslan Grumble / Shutterstock.com

On a July afternoon in 1995, a 33-year-old man named Curtis Wilkerson walked into a store, stole one pair of socks, and was promptly arrested. This wasn’t Wilkerson’s first crime, but it was surprising, considering his long streak of good behavior. The last time he was trouble with the law was when he was in his teens, after two offenses for abetting robbery. He was sentenced to six years.

After his release from that sentence, Wilkerson cleaned his life up. Instead of running the streets for money, he drove a forklift. All things considered, he was a “success story,” earnestly walking that “straight and narrow” path — up until, that is, those gorgeous socks waved his way.

Why he did it remains a mystery. But since I was once an angsty teenage shoplifter, I imagine he was probably just bored. Hungry for a momentary thrill. An innocent-ish high. I imagine him thinking, it’s just a pair of socks. $2.50. Not much more than a pack of gum.

But be it socks or a Chevy Silverado, the state of California did not care. Shortly following his arrest, he was brought before a judge and sentenced to life in prison.

In California, the three-strikes law was the law of the land. A type of mandatory minimum sentencing law, the law required judges to punish defendants guilty of their third felony with 25 years to life in prison. Stolen socks, most of the time, would’ve counted as a misdemeanor. But, and likely because he was black, Wilkerson was charged with a felony, his third strike. And consequently, was given the harshest punishment in the history of stolen socks.

In 2012, California voters approved a measure to reform the law, making mandatory life sentences only applicable to “serious” felonies, but even still, Wilkerson remains behind bars.

Leftovers of the “War on Drugs,” Mandatory Minimum Sentences have been condemned for decades as being unjust, racist, and in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual” clause. These laws eliminate judicial discretion in setting punishment, relying instead on general directives set by the state or federal government, directives that are disproportionately harsh and based on overly simplified criteria, devoid of any relevant details to the unique nature of each case.

As a result, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have 5 percent of the world’s population and house 25 percent of its prisoners. States, especially California, are buckling beneath the cost of maintaining the nearly 800 percent rise in its prison population over the last 30 years. We have nonviolent drug offenders locked away for sentences once reserved solely for rapists and murders. We have inmates who arenot rehabilitated, but hardened, prompting some to call our system the “Graduate School” for criminals.

The system is failing. It is failing itself. It is failing the people. It is failing the value of justice. And a critical thread unraveling it all is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing.

Most Christians I know love the idea of justice; the dream of it. They imagine it as a way of fighting back against the fallen nature of the world, conquering evil and bringing about fairness and goodness — with “love thy neighbor” enshrined as the law of the land.

But when asked about what justice looks like in our criminal justice system, they stumble. It is a complicated conversation. In weighing out grace and safety, their children and the anonymous, possibly violent felons locked away, they are left rightly unsure. They know Matthew 25, how Jesus says to look for him in the eyes of the prisoner, but they also know the menacing looks of the guilty splashed across their television screens. Mercy and forgiveness tangle up with fear and vigilance..

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, after being asked to define pornography, admitted that he couldn’t come up with a satisfying definition, only saying: “I know it when I see it.”

And with justice, I suppose, so do we. We struggle for a definition, but we know it looks like restoration, for victim, community, and then perpetrator. We’ve seen it in the reconciliation trials led by Desmond Tutu in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. We see it in the moment forgiveness is felt and repentance is realized — when grace, truth, and faith stitch back together the lives ripped to shreds by tragedy.

We do not see justice in life sentences for stolen socks. We don’t see it in the destruction of a young man’s life caught selling drugs, sentenced to the same punishment as a rapist. We don’t see it in cases of Marissa Alexander, a woman who fired a warning shot above her abusive husband and was then sentenced to 25 years in prison, because of a mandatory minimum for aggravated armed assault. We don’t see it in this disproportionate, unjustified, and immoral punishment.

Jesus once said: No more to this eye-for-an-eye nonsense — and 2,000 years later, we still stand in opposition to him. In our system, we demand more punishment, less mercy, payback over restoration. We shackle and shuffle away the detained, submitting to a pseudo sense of security that comes from the sight of barbed-wire fences. And at the expense of it all … is Jesus, behind bars.

In the U.S. Congress, the Smarter Sentencing Act is getting another push. Led by a bipartisan coalition of senators, the act itself is modest given how deeply broken our criminal justice system is, but it is undoubtedly a step forward. The bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences set at 10 years to five years and those set at five years to two years. It would grant greater discretion to judges, allowing a more customized evaluation of proper punishment. It would lessen the strain on our prisons and debt, allowing for money to flow into other areas, such as education and social justice initiatives.

This act is a critical first step in curing the infection of injustice in our system. I urge you to let your representatives know where you stand.

Ben Moberg is a brother to four siblings, the youngest son, the very best uncle, a world traveler, and a painfully slow writer. He writes at Registered Runaway — his personal blog, and at Deeper Story — an online collaborative of storytellers. You can keep up with his work by following him on Facebook and Twitter.

Image:  / Shutterstock.com

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