Some Sentencing New Year’s Resolutions

Post Date: January 1, 2014

New Year’s Day is a great time to reflect on the past and think about the future. Most of us resolve to improve  some things in our lives. In that spirit, here are my recommendations for resolutions for people involved in sentencing reform:

Legislators

Educate yourself about sentencing reform.

Read books, studies, law review articles, congressional testimony, blogs, and op-eds on sentencing and mandatory minimums. Look at the data. Go back and see what promises the proponents of mandatory minimums made when they were passed (Deterrence? Uniformity?) and then find out if those things actually happened. Look to the experiences of other states who have experimented with mandatory minimums. Research what happens to crime rates when mandatory minimum drug laws are repealed. Ask why otherwise pro-incarceration academics oppose mandatory minimum drug laws, and whether they might be on to something after all. Ask whether your ideological commitments really require support for mandatory minimums, or if they require something else entirely. Ask yourself why some of the most conservative groups in the country are calling for sentencing reform.

Most importantly, take some time to reflect on why you support mandatory minimums, then compare (and contrast!) your expectations with the evidence.

Prosecutors

1. Fulfill the ethical responsibilities of your office. 

According to the American Bar Association, “The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” Resolve to fulfill this ethical responsibility. The structural incentives built into the criminal justice system make it very easy to focus on conviction rates. I’d imagine it’s very difficult to live up to the ideal of the disinterested prosecutor seeking justice even at the expense of one’s career or ego. Nevertheless, that is the prosecutor’s charge, and you should aim to fulfill that ideal. What does that mean in practice? For starters, don’t coerce defendants into pleading guilty by threatening to stack charges or tack on lengthy mandatory minimums if your plea deals are rejected. If you find yourself doing that, ask yourself why. Ask yourself whether threatening a person with decades in prison if they exercise their constitutional rights is fulfilling or violating your ethical responsibility to seek justice. 

2. Be honest about why you support mandatory minimums.

It makes sense that prosecutors would support mandatory minimums generally; I get it. Mandatory minimums are cruel, brutal hammers with which prosecutors can coerce defendants into pleading guilty. That makes prosecutors’ jobs easier, and if you think a defendant is guilty, then the easiest path to conviction is also the most just.

But sometimes prosecutors oppose mandatory minimums! It’s true! Consider that after a couple of decades of failure, Michigan’s prosecutors joined FAMM to repeal that state’s awful “650-Lifer” law, and restore judicial discretion in drug sentencing. In New York, though they resisted changes for years, prosecutors eventually came around and supported repeal of the “Rockefeller drug laws” that had filled New York’s prisons with low-level drug offenders but failed to reduce drug activity or crime.  The Iowa County Prosecutors Association actually wrote a letter opposing the expansion of mandatory minimums for sex offenders, arguing that mandatory minimums do “more harm than good,” and actually reduce the likelihood of conviction. Read it for yourself

As prosecutors in Michigan, New York, Iowa and elsewhere have shown, it is possible for prosecutors to be honest about mandatory minimums. Support them if you think they actually reduce crime and protect public safety (but show your work!). But if you’re not convinced mandatory minimums are effective – if you’re just not convinced by the available evidence – don’t pretend otherwise because mandatory minimums make your job easier or because you think it makes you look “tough on crime.”

Law Enforcement

Reflect on why you support mandatory minimums.

I’ve never understood why police officers support mandatory minimums. I assume their support derives from a genuine belief that mandatory minimums reduce crime through incapacitation and general deterrence. The reason I don’t understand that position is that it’s demonstrably false (especially with respect to drug crimes). It isn’t as if these issues haven’t been studied exhaustively. It isn’t as if there’s just no evidence out there, so we should just go with our gut and hope for the best. It simply isn’t the case that a genuinely held belief in the crime-reducing magic of mandatory minimums is as reasonable as the belief that they don’t work.

We’re right about this.

And you can be right, too! So my recommendation for law enforcement officers is: reflect on the reasons you support mandatory minimums. Do you think they deter crime? Go research the issue and see if you’re right! Do you think incapacitation of drug users reduces drug activity? Go research the issue see if you’re right! The evidence really does contradict your assumptions about the efficacy of mandatory minimums! (Would you be willing to change your position on the basis that the evidence doesn’t support the one you currently hold? Changing one’s mind is a brave act, but few are braver than our police, so I have faith.)

Secondly, ask yourself if mandatory minimums are really the best way to fight crime in your cities and counties. Think of the nearly $100 million Florida spends annually incarcerating low-level drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences. What if we put that money into our Sheriffs’ offices instead? What could you do with more resources that you can’t do now because they’re earmarked for the Department of Corrections? Could you hire more officers to patrol high crime areas? (There’s evidence that reduces crime!) Could you pay your officers more? Make their pensions more secure? Create a new crime-fighting program in your county? The possibilities are endless! But resources are finite and opportunity costs force us to prioritize our spending. We can keep throwing money away on inefficient incarceration, or we can give you the tools you need to fight crime. The choice really is yours! (Help us!)

Everyone Else

Do what you can to fight for sentencing reform.We’re all here for different reasons. Some of us have a loved one in prison. Some of us see the injustices mandatory minimums cause and spend every moment we can fighting against them. Whatever has motivated you to become aware of this cause, my recommendation for your new year’s resolution is to do whatever you can to help the fight.

  • Donate to FAMM if you can.
  • If you can’t, share our stories. Tell your friends and family about us, and about mandatory minimums generally.
  • Educate yourself so you know the issue as well as you can.
  • Call your legislators, members of Congress and Senators.
  • Attend town hall meetings in your area. (2014 is an election year; there will be a lot of these!)
  • Join your local political party and start talking to others about making sentencing reform a priority.
  • Join Twitter, follow all of us at FAMM and tweet to your representatives.
  • Join Facebook and “like” FAMM.
  • Print flyers and put them around your town.
  • Do whatever it is you think you can do to help reform our sentencing laws, no matter how big or small the effort, because everything you do helps.   

At the end of every Florida legislative session since 2011 I’ve been angry, upset, and bitterly disappointed in myself for failing to get our bills passed. My resolution this year is to be happy at the end of this one.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2014! (And a new job by 2015!)

~Greg Newburn, FAMM Florida Project Director

8 Responses to “Some Sentencing New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. Sandra couch

    My husband got a 20 year mandatory sentence for 3 signed statements against him, they came to out home and found no drugs or no weapons or no large amounts if money, and they told him either do the plea agreement for 20 years or he could face up to 30 to 50 years in prison, also his first plea agreement was for 10 years and the morning he went to court, minutes before he appeared before the judge and prosecutor, they changed it to 20 years, he thought he was going to court to plea for the 10 year sentence because he took the 5th and would cooperate with the commonwealth in other because he wouldn’t RAT!!!! And for his guideline sentence it shouldn’t have been no more than 8 to 10 years at the most, he got more time than the rest even the kingpins ( as they called them ) so I think his time should have been based on his guidelines,, so unfair, also got sent 10 hours away from and they said it wasn’t counted by driving hours that it went by air time,, so aince then his mom died, his father-in-law died, and they kept telling him that he could put in to get moved closer to home after his sentence was under 10 years to a camp, but he got moved to the camp next door still at same place just a few months ago, he has been there at same place his whole time he has spent,, so we really need help with his case,,!!! Also the one testimony used against him was dismissed because the person was found lying, a few days after they used his testimony against my husband to change his sentence from 10-20 Years,, so if anyone can help, it would be greatly appreciated, we have no money for a lawyer, thanks (Ky area)

    Reply
  2. margaret hoover

    I just want to Thank you for all your hard work and I pray this will be the year that someone does something to stop this madness. My son has lost his family and his business because of this. I pray something happens soon to bring him home and pray he will be able to rebuild his life.

    Reply
  3. danny

    PLEASE HELP 33 YEARS MINOR CHARGES
    Daniel J. Knight, known to the state as inmate 305757 currently serving a 33 year sentence because of a signature. Florida tax payers will spend over 3/4 a million dollars to keep a non violent former drug addict in prison for the rest of his life.Florida inmate cost per diem is $71.93 x 365 x 30 years = $787,633.5
    The state of Florida reccomended a 15 year sentence With out explanation A 30 year sentence was handed by Judge John Merrett.
    A single charge of possessing 10 grams of a controlled substance with a street value of 1k. (one thousand dollars.)Daniel has only 2 prior arrest in his life time, both non violent drug related charges
    This is sad and true proof that the judicial system in Florida is corrupt and failing to provide fair and equal justice to citizens and its tax payers.
    The war on drugs is a complete and total failure.
    Daniel J. Knight’s prison mailing address and More information in the “notes” under the photo on his face book page .
    Danny J. Knight
    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002773687391

    Reply
  4. Dan

    I am currently waiting trial for conspiracy to traffic 28 grams of a controlled substance. There are 28 co-defendents in my case and 2 of them are saying I was involved. All of the evidence shows my involvement at worst was very minimal. The mandatory sentence is 25 years. The state has offered me 22 years and most recently was offered 15 years. I have a well known atty. and he says I have a chance to win in trial. I would like to do whatever I can to get these mandatory sentences out of the picture. Someone PLEASE let me know how i can help make this change.

    Reply
  5. Shelly Myogeto

    I am truly sorry for the harsh amount of time that has been handed down to your loved ones.. i too am facing a mandatory minimum, and will be sentenced to prison in the next 2 months.. its sad.. ive been clean a year and 4 months.. i have a job, a home, i am one semester away from having my associates degree and all of it seems now, to have been for nothing.. i feel for you and your families.. god bless!

    Reply
  6. Donnicka

    At the end of the day I hope I can stop being so terrified about the world and what it’s coming too. It’s seems so backwards to me do our justice system realize that there is good people in the world incarcerated because of addiction, family problems, poverty, and people that just didn’t have a chance from the start and please believe I’m all for taking consequences for your own actions but it should be within it’s own merits. I can’t bare to understand is how can a non-violent offender do the same time as rapist,murders,kingpins, and masterminds which who don’t take the fall in the first place it’s the what I hear NOBODIES always get it the most and worst something need to change this not what America base on. Does our congressmen realize that all it takes is rehabilitation, programs,and more job opportunities instead of harsh prison sentences because of the mandatory sentencing law this world can be a world worth living in.

    Reply
  7. june johnson

    My man has been in PRISON FOR 24 YEARS HE GOT 30 YEARS THEY DID NOT FINE ANY DRUGS OR GUNS THEY WENT BY SOME ONE WHO LIED ON HIM AND HE GOT 30 YEARS FOR THAT HE HAS LOST 2 BROTHERS AND HIS FATHER IS 73 NOW PUTTING PEOPLE IN PRISON FOR SO LONG THEY TAKE THERE LIFE AWAY AND THERE FAMILY THAT IS NOT RIGHT

    Reply

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