Why do we have mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses but not for crimes like rape? That’s the burning question in everyone’s mind in the wake of Brock Turner’s early release from prison. I’m not sure anyone hasn’t heard the name Brock Turner. If you’re not familiar with the case though, Turner is the former Stanford student who was convicted for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
Turner gained national attention because of the lenient sentence he received, presumably because of a biased notion that a Stanford athlete shouldn’t be punished as harshly as some every-day Joe. In his now infamous sentence, Judge Persky gave Turner such a light sentence because the judge felt, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”
Although he faced up to 10 years in prison, Turner was sentenced to only 6 months in jail and was released on good behavior after serving a mere 3 months. Many were appalled at the judge’s sentence but, because judges are given wide discretion when it comes to sentencing in the absence of a mandatory minimum law, he was within the boundaries of the law.
Mandatory Minimums Versus Judicial Discretion
California has since passed a bill, currently awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s approval, that would institute a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of penetrating an intoxicated or unconscious person, but that’s only in the wake of the Turner case. It doesn’t solve the issues surrounding other crimes that may warrant a similar minimum. Legislators have, in the past, expressed support for that very same judicial discretion they’re now wanting to take away.
While there’s pros and cons on each side, it’s hard for some to get past the inequities. Is it fair and just that some nonviolent drug offenders are serving more time than a sex offender? Probably not.
Just to give some perspective, federal law mandates a minimum of a 5-year sentence for a conviction of selling 28 grams of crack cocaine. Here’s some more perspective—28 grams is equivalent to about an ounce. There’s 16 ounces in a pound. Certainly, we don’t want those drugs being sold on our streets, but I can’t fathom how that’s worse than rape.
Those against mandatory minimum sentences argue prison overcrowding is a huge problem. In California, for example, the average cost to incarcerate one person for a year is $64,000, which is more than what many Americans make in a year. Further, opponents argue mandatory requirements lead to unfair and unjust prison sentences, as well as inequities in minimum sentencing compared to sentences that depend on judicial discretion. The very same argument can be made, however, in favor of mandatory minimums because either option can create sentencing inequity. This is easy to see in the cases of nonviolent drug offenders who are serving more time than a sexual offender.
While mass overcrowding is certainly an issue that should be addressed, it’s not a strong enough reason to forego mandatory minimums simply because it doesn’t outweigh letting potentially dangerous criminals out on the street. Personal bias, unfairly targeting minority groups, creating coercion, and unjust sentencing seem to be the better arguments from a moral standpoint.
At the same time, mandatory minimums may keep criminals off the street for lengthier periods, but recidivism rates are high and they do nothing to prevent other criminals from taking their place while they’re in jail.
Taking Away Judicial Discretion Only Puts Power into Another’s Hands
An important argument that often gets missed is that taking away a judge’s power to use discretion essentially puts sentencing power in the hands of someone else—the prosecutor, more specifically. It rings true that when mandatory minimum sentences are required, a prosecutor can essentially pick the sentence when they decide which charges to bring against a defendant. Sentencing isn’t a power that should belong in the hands of a partial charging party. The state represents the people and they can always recommend a sentence, but a judge’s role is to be impartial, fair, unbiased and to ensure the laws are followed.
Then what do you do when the judge is biased and unfair? Some say the judge was most definitely unfair and biased in the Turner case. Mandatory minimums could help eliminate any personal bias one may have, say, for example, towards a successful athlete from a prestigious school, but there’s pitfalls on both sides.
Again, it’s an ongoing debate that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution. Whether focusing efforts towards crime prevention all together is the answer is left to be decided, but it seems a change must come.