The United States has, by far, the largest incarceration rate in the world – with nearly 25% of the world’s inmate population, despite having only 5% of the world’s total population. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, over 500,000 of these prisoners – in both federal and state penitentiaries – are non-violent drug offenders. Alongside the human cost of this repressive imprisonment policy, a considerable financial burden exists; imprisoning an individual in a minimum-security facility for one year costs $21,000, therefore, approximately $10billion is spent incarcerating non-violent drug offenders annually. One of the primary causes of this systemic incarceration, that has predominantly targeted Black and Hispanic individuals, has been the existence of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences has existed in varying degrees in the US for over half a century, and has targeted both dealers and users of illegal narcotics. This unjust practice essentially twists the arm of judges, disallowing them from making rational decisions on individual cases. The case for reform was put forward in a Senate hearing last week, and was a particularly noteworthy development as it garnered bipartisan support. Republican Senator Rand Paul insisted that “each case should be judged on its own merits […and that] mandatory minimums prevent this from happening”, while Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy labeled the sentencing program as “a great mistake” that is “costly [and] unfair”.
The Senate hearing was followed, on Thursday 19th September, by a groundbreaking declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder. Essentially, the announcement outlined an intention to halt mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences, except in certain extreme cases – such as those involving the use of a weapon or selling to minors.
The devastation that mandatory minimum sentencing has caused is unmistakable, and one man who knows that all too well is Anthony Papa. Papa is the manager of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as being a respected author, a revered artist and a doting father. He is also a convicted felon, who received a sentence of 15 years to life for a first-time, non-violent drug offence. In the early 1980s, Papa was offered $500 by an acquaintance to deliver an envelope to a mysterious recipient just outside of New York City. Unbeknownst to Papa, his acquaintance was a police informant, the envelope contained cocaine, and the recipient was part of a law enforcement ‘sting’ operation. Due to the strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws in New York – enacted by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 – the judge in Papa’s trial had little flexibility in the sentencing, despite the controversial and unethical circumstances of his arrest and indictment.
The movement towards a fairer justice system has grown considerably with the Attorney General’s announcement, and hopefully means that cases such as that of Anthony Papa will not reoccur. However, it is also important for the end of mandatory minimums to be applied retroactively – so that individuals currently serving inordinately long sentences for non-violent drug crimes can receive a more rational trial and sentence. It is hypocritical for representatives of both political parties, as well as the Department of Justice, to claim to be resolving the injustices of mandatory minimums while allowing countless harmless Americans to rot in jail. As Martin Luther King wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.