Why has incarceration exploded in the United States? Over the past few decades, incarceration rates have increased by 700 percent. Have we suddenly become an utterly lawless country? Or is something else going on? We caught up with Glenn E. Martin, at Impact Prisons 2017 to get his take on the situation. In this interview, he suggests that mandatory minimum sentencing laws contribute to the problem. Mandatory sentencing laws came into vogue in the heyday of the War on Drugs. It was believed by many that if the prison sentences were long enough and harsh enough, people who used and sold drugs would stop doing so. Thus, the threat of prison was regarded as a deterrent. Undoubtedly, we need a large dose of sanity to reform our prison sentence. Giving judges the power to act as judges rather than administrators is a step in the right direction.
The following decades have proven this hope to be spectacularly naïve. Apparently, those who use drugs recreationally don’t weigh the possibility of prison sentences, which are, after all, rather remote. And those who sell and transport drugs apparently think that the rewards outweigh the risk. Nonetheless, sentences for drug possession and drug trafficking have increased dramatically, even up to 20 years. And mandatory minimum sentencing laws make it impossible for judges to step in and shorten those sentences when there’s a lack of a criminal record or other factors.
In addition, many states have created mandatory sentences for repeat offenders, such as California’s Three Strikes Law—which was designed to put an end to the petty crimes committed by repeat offenders. The immediate consequence of the law was that many people were sent away for 20-year long mandatory sentences for petty crimes like shoplifting.
Power to the Judge Amid Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws
Not that we should support shoplifting, but if we are going to send people away for life for the offense of stealing a screwdriver, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the prison population explodes and becomes more and more expensive. Simply from an economic perspective, this situation makes no sense for society whatsoever. From a justice perspective, the situation is equally dire. The mandatory sentencing laws in the United States are notoriously harsh when judged alongside other modern industrial societies. Decades-long and life sentences for drug possession can hardly be regarded as sensible in the modern world.
Martin suggests that giving judges back their discretionary power may help to alleviate the surge in incarceration. In truth, judges should be able to consider all of the circumstances and consequences of a crime, and seek out the best possible alternative for all involved, rather than have their hands tied by the most draconian choice.