Mandatory Madness

It was a scene right out of Victor Hugo's classic French novel Les Miserables. Michael was a husband and the father of a little girl when he had his first run-in with the law. Depressed over losing his job, Michael drank too much one night, took a toy gun, and robbed a taxi driver and his passenger, taking $50. But the judge realized that Michael was a confused and desperate young man, not a hardened criminal. She sentenced him to a work program for one year—where he was able to support his family, pay back his victims, and build his job skills. But then Michael's case was appealed. The new judge ruled that he would have to serve out the rest of the state mandatory sentence for robbery—five years behind bars. Apparently, twentieth-century America hasn't advanced very far beyond nineteenth-century France. in Les Miserables a hungry man, Jean Val Jean, was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. And the problem could soon grow worse. A new omnibus crime bill being hammered out today by congressional committee will create a flurry of new mandatory minimum sentences. This is madness. Mandatory sentences produce terrible inequities. Big-time criminals are able to finger others and negotiate a lesser sentence. The hardest hit are low-level offenders who have nothing to bargain with: people like Michael. Often a driver, who plays no significant role in a drug deal, is hit with a 10-year sentence, while dealers, who have information to trade, get five years or less. What's worse, by letting these minor players in the criminal world take up prison space, officials are turning violent criminals out on the streets. Our prisons are so clogged with low-level offenders that rapists and murderers are released early to prey upon the innocent. If mandatory minimums don't work, what can we do about the Michaels of this world? Yes, he broke the law and should be punished. But there are other forms of punishment besides prison: work programs, house arrest, electronic monitoring. Alternative sentencing allows low-level offenders to develop marketable skills, keep their families off welfare, and pay restitution to their victims. It's better for the criminal, better for the victim, and ultimately better for the whole society as well. But under mandatory sentencing, judges are not given the option of using alternatives. They're required to impose a single sentencing structure without any regard for an offender's history, his likelihood of repeating the crime, or his willingness to undergo treatment. Mandatory sentencing treats judges as well-paid meter maids, scribbling out tickets based on precalculated fines. In spite of that, lawmakers continue to pass mandatory sentencing because they feel it makes them look tough on crime. The final version of the omnibus crime bill is likely to include several new mandatory minimums unless our lawmakers hear from people like you. Call your representatives and tell them you oppose legislation that treats all offenders like cookie-cutter criminals.


Chuck Colson


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