mandatory minimums

A Mandatory Mistake

Ruslan Grumble /

Ruslan Grumble /

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.

How to Dismantle the 'New Jim Crow'

I HEAR A STIRRING, a rumbling. An awakening. Sometimes the sound is so faint, I worry it’s my imagination, my optimism getting the best of me. I pause, listen, and wait. Here it comes again. I want to rush to my window, fling it open, stick my head way out, and look around. Is it happening? For real this time? Is the sleeping giant finally waking up?

God knows we’ve slept too long.

Many of us—myself included—slept through a revolution. Actually, it was a counterrevolution that has blown back much of the progress that so many racial justice advocates risked their lives for. This counterrevolution occurred with barely a whimper of protest, even as a war was declared, one that purported to be aimed at “drugs.”

Really, the war took aim at people—overwhelmingly poor people and people of color—who were taken prisoner en masse and then relegated to a permanent, second-class status, stripped of basic civil and human rights such as the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and public benefits. Branded “criminals” or “felons,” millions of people discovered that the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement no longer applied to them.

A penal system unprecedented in world history emerged in a few short decades; by the year 2000, 2 million people found themselves behind bars, and 60 million were saddled with criminal records that would condemn them for life—staggering statistics, given that in the 1970s there were only about 350,000 people in prison.

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Mandatory Minimums: How Long Does it Take to Learn Your Lesson?

Mass incarceration illustration, Linda Bucklin/

Mass incarceration illustration, Linda Bucklin/

Before selling illegal drugs, Dejarion Echols worked several years for a youth correctional agency and a psychiatric residential-treatment facility for teenagers. He decided to pursue a college education but couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. Desperate to make money, the unemployed, 23-year-old, engaged father of two sold crack cocaine for six months in 2004.

Any chance Dejarion had for a meaningful, productive life quickly ended. On a tip, police searched his home, found 44 grams of crack cocaine, $5,700, and an unloaded rifle. After pleading guilty, Dejarion received two mandatory 10-year sentences: one for the drugs, the other for the gun.

Dejarion admits he sold drugs. He denies the gun had been used in illegal-drug activity.

The presiding federal judge, Walter S. Smith, expressed frustration at having to impose such a sentence. “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me,” he said, explaining that he was powerless to reduce it because of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.

Enacted by Congress decades ago, mandatory-minimum sentences have dramatically affected the federal criminal-justice system. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased 800 percent , largely due to drug-related mandatory-minimum sentences. The federal system is the largest in the United States holding 217,000 prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for a drug offense. Fewer than 8 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a violent crime.