Whether it’s while running for city council or for Congress, activists rallying at a conference, or just every day folks trying to swing a moderate their way, Republicans can’t stop talking about serving justice. We’re ‘tough on crime!’ and we tout how many awful people we ‘put away’ in a certain period of time. Constituencies expect it and it seems to be low-hanging fruit for many hard (R’s)…but what they don’t know is they are all wrong.
The justice system has long been on the decline and in an era where Americans are becoming less and less trustworthy of the process from arrest to probation, Republicans shouldn’t be showcasing what they believe to be effectiveness in the legal system.
Mandatory minimum sentencing practices came about in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in response to criticism that judges had too much power. Additionally, it was part of a crackdown on certain offenses to serve as a deterrent – one that has since be deemed virtually ineffective.
We made some mistakes. It’s okay to admit that. It’s even better to admit that there have been a series of unintended consequences from the enactment of these laws. There will likely be more with any reforms we make. This is trial and error, but we have to start somewhere. The important thing is that we acknowledge our failures and work to remedy them.
First, and most conservatively, there are fiscal and economic repercussions to these mandatory minimum sentences:
- Cost – We’re arbitrarily maxing out on the cost of incarceration at the expense of taxpayers. On average, it costs between $35,000-50,000 annually to house an inmate. If someone is sentenced to a mandatory 10 years, the state is on the hook for a minimum of $350,000 in direct economic costs. If the crime lacked severity, costs could top out at a mere $70,000-$100,000, but that type of cost-savings analysis relative to the crime committed is not permitted.
- It’s forcing overcrowding – The Federal Justice Judicial Center reported that 70% of the prison growth related to sentencing since 1985 is attributed to increases in drug sentence length.
- Job availability – Would you be more willing to hire someone who has served 15 years or less than five years in prison? The longer someone is incarcerated, the less likely it is they will attain a sustainable long-term job that will keep them a member of the workforce. The cyclical nature of this is social program dependency, another thing conservatives are against.
- We aren’t actually fixing anything – Mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime. There are various studies out there that show the correlation between the length of time in prison and recidivism rates. They’re rather high. Why? Because we aren’t rehabilitating, we aren’t correcting behavior…Recidivism will cost us. The conservative argument is to transition these folks into a role of productivity in society,
Despite knowing these economic impacts, our state legislatures are still proposing legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes – new and old. Since 1991, crimes punishable by MMS’s have doubled.
Another issue of concern: This sentencing structure completely eliminates judicial discretion. If you truly think about it, judicial power has actually been usurped by the legislature and portions of the judicial branch are operating under the direction of the legislature. It also places the power in the hands of the prosecutors because they are the ones filing charges. Remember, prosecutors keep statistics on how many people they lock up each year. This isn’t just wrong for our judicial system. It’s wrong for a Republican form of government. Judges should have the ability to weigh the facts and circumstances of every case individually because no case is the same. The justice system was never intended to operate in the one-size-fits-all mentality. Sentencing power needs to be restored to our judges from the legislative branch.
Georgia’s made minuscule progress. Aside from various rankings giving us a D- (or worse) in civil forfeiture practices and the highest number of citizens on probation, Georgia finally removed the convicted felon box on in-state job applications, made the parole process a smidgen more transparent, and slowly informing elected officials who don’t even know what civil asset forfeiture is.
The conservative stance on justice reform is not helping us economically and it isn’t helping us win elections, It’s time to reevaluate. Everyone has a story. It’s time conservatives allow those stories to be heard in inside the courtroom and on the road to rehabilitation. Georgia, are you listening? It’s time to repeal mandatory minimum sentences.
This blog is part of a series following the FreedomWorks Justice Reform Briefing organized by Jason Pye in Washington, D.C. in May 2015. FreedomWorks partnered with the Center for American Progress to bring together bloggers and activists from all corners of the political spectrum to address reforms needed for the justice system, including mandatory minimum sentencing, the death penalty, and civil forfeiture.
To read Part 1 – An Introduction, click here.