Opinion: The judicial system’s chance to evolve


Rachel Godin is a junior journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.  Contact her at [email protected]

Rachel Godin

Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown by 700 percent and now exceeds 2.4 million. According to the Washington Post, the single largest driver in the increase of prison populations since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.

American policymaking has a terrible reputation of being incredibly reactionary. The beginnings of mandatory minimum drug sentences are a perfect example of how, once again, societal issues are often responded to by “quick fix” political solutions: In 1986, when American cities began to notice an increase in crack-fueled crimes, Congress approved mandatory minimum prison sentences. Today, groups are finally stepping up to fight against mandatory minimum sentencing with amendment proposals.

There are two main reasons minimum sentencing needs to be reduced.

First, the law is being used as a means of distancing society fromthe problems it cannot face at this time.

Second, the law benefits the “big business” of prisons. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

Long sentences are given out in hopes of curtailing the amount and consistency of drug offenses, but instead, they enhance a prison’s ability to exploit inmates with long sentences for cheap, consistent labor.

Until we can create social systems to help the groups who are most likely to wind up homeless, psychologically unfit and in prison, we need to make changes to the legislation that keeps prisons running in the first place.

Furthermore, the law is discriminatory. 500 grams of cocaine powder results in a five-year sentence; this is 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence.

According to Global Research, “Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine.”

The law is also extreme. “In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana and in New York the Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law mandates a prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.”

This oppositional stand is not at all radical. We are not asking for complete drug deregulation or for drug crime to go unnoticed.

Instead, we are simply asking for the criminal justice system to take an ethical, more humane approach to America’s drug problem. Extreme punishment makes prisoners lose faith in the justice system altogether.

There should be a shared hope that when inmates have served their time and are released back into society, they will be granted the same rights as fellow citizens and will use their vote as a voice to enact change. If we do not change this law, we will be stuck in a negative cycle of political apathy, judicial debt and legal exploitation of human life.

Furthermore, the creator of the mandatory minimum sentencing law, Eric Sterling, admits he was wrong. “I’ve become infamous for my role. I did a very poor job, and it’s a shameful period for me that I was not more effective or skilled, or better informed.”

Luckily, drug-sentencing guidelines are expected to change soon.  An amendment proposed in 2011 known as “All Drugs Minus Two,” is under review by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The amendment would reduce United State sentencing guidelines by two levels for all drugs across the board.

Attorney General Eric Holder backs the concept, saying, “This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges — while measured in scope — would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system and it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”