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August 21 2009

Mandatory Minimums, Maximum Foolishness

Nicole Kurokawa Neily

Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants football player, was sentenced yesterday for possession of a weapon at a nightclub (he shot himself in the leg accidentally.) He will serve two years in prison - as the New York Daily News points out, "the law sets a 3-1/2-year mandatory minimum sentence in state prison - unless you wrangle a plea bargain. And the bargaining terms are tightly restricted."

Gun-control advocates laud the decision, crowing that the law has triumphed over the power of celebrity. Unfortunately, that's the wrong lesson to take away from this incident.

A rigidly inflexible criminal justice system based upon mandatory sentencing does not enhance law and order. Some crimes are indeed heinous, and offenders deserve to be locked up forever. Other offenders have made bad choices, but are not bad people. But tying judges' hands leaves them unable to take into account individual circumstances, which is extremely important when deciding the fate of a fellow human being. More often than not, rehabilitation and second chances are taken off the table, while jails fill up with criminals (at no small expense to the state.) The impact that this has had on families and communities has been devastating. Needless to say, this disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that advocates fair, proportionate, and individualized sentencing for crimes, highlights a number of victims of "tough on crime" mandatory minimum laws. They propose restoring judges' discretion to fit the punishment to the individual, sentencing guidelines (as opposed to mandates) and the use of sentencing alternatives when appropriate, such as substance abuse treatment, drug court supervision, probation, and community correctional programs.

Without a doubt, many of these individuals have committed serious crimes. But in the long run, tailoring sentencing is the just thing to do. A one-size-fits all approach to criminal justice isn't working - and it won't work for health reform, either.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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