Reposted from Blogger
Crime and Excessive Punishment – February 29, 2008
Earlier this week I attended a screening of a film by Melissa Mummert, a Unitarian minister currently based in North Carolina. While serving as a chaplain intern in a federal prison in California, she decided to make a documentary about mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and their unintended consequences.
Rev. Mummert tells the story of Hamedah Hasan, who was charged with conspiracy and drug trafficking after moving in with a cousin. All evidence pointed to Ms. Hasan playing a minimal role in her cousin’s drug operation, but because she refused to provide information about her cousin, she was charged and convicted of multiple drug offenses. Due to mandatory sentencing requirements, Ms. Hasan was sentenced to two life sentences, two forty year sentences, two twenty year sentences, a five and a four year sentence for essentially not cooperating with federal prosecutors. Rev. Mummert found out about Ms. Hasan’s case and began to help shed light on the fight to reduce the sentence and free Hamedah Hasan. Rev. Mummert created a film entitled Perversion of Justice, which discusses Ms. Hasan’s situation, and highlights the flaws in federal mandatory sentencing guidelines.
This film highlights what I consider to be a major problem in America today; the inflexibility of mandatory minimum criminal sentences. Most of the those laws were put into place during the national crime spike of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. Many people were frightened by rising crime rates, and one of the surest ways for a politician to get elected was to rail against crime. “Git Tuff” replaced “Get Smart”, and mandatory sentences, three strikes laws, and ramping up of the drug war became the new clarion calls. Arguments relating to economics, social and political inequalities, and racial tensions were derided. Sound bites replaced reasoned and thoughtful debate. Politicians didn’t become elected because they wanted to get to the root of crime and figure out the origin of crimes and criminals. Rehabilitation was no longer popular. Lock ’em away, fry ’em, and other simplistic slogans became the focus of the debate.
So many people were locked away for simple possession of drugs, while prisons became too overcrowded for housing violent criminals. Oversight diminished as more criminals were sent to privatized prisons. During the ’90’s, the economy greatly improved, and, as normally happens, the crime rate dropped. Still, few seemed to understand the corrolation. Blaming the criminals for all of society’s ills is still more likely to get someone elected than blaming society’s ills for criminals. One argument requires nothing more than sound bites and angry speeches. The other requires analysis and a reasoned, nuanced approach. Pretty clear what people with short attention spans will respond better to.
So, judges are forced to give women like Hamedah Hasan centuries in prison for associating with criminals (her first offense, by the way). The utter inflexibility of the sentencing requirements force the hand of an increasingly disrespected and weakened judiciary system.
And, it’s not just excessive drug policy. I first noticed the issue of excessive sentences when hearing about the cases of several juveniles in Colorado. In the mid nineties, several cases involving teenagers came to prominence.
Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen are both spending the rest of their lives in prison for something that happened when they were 16. Nathan killed his mother in a psychotic episode after years of abuse. Erik was charged with assisting his friend in the crime. Neither are likely to get out should their appeals fail.
Trevor Jones accidently shot a friend when a gun discharged unintentionally. The friend died and Trevor is now spending the rest of his life in prison thanks to an accident that occured while he was 17.
Andrew Medina was involved with a carjacking at the age of 15. The vicitim was shot during the process, and even though half of the jury didn’t even consider Andrew to be the shooter, much less an actual participant, he is now serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison.
These stories and others once again serve to highlight the flaws in our current criminal justice system.
Serious changes need to be made involving sentencing guidelines. Too many judges are forced to sentence people to prison times that don’t appear to fit the crime. Too much emphasis is made on punishment, and not nearly enough on rehabilitation.
The whole point of the trial system is for the judge to look at an individual case and decide on appropriate action based on the individual circumstances. However, when all that is available is a sheet of numbers designed to shoehorn widely ranging individuals and events in a neat box, justice becomes difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
It makes no sense not to look at every case and factor in motivation, circumstance, history, background, and environment before deciding to fill America’s already overcrowded prisons with a person who may not even need to be there.
It actually costs the taxpayers less money to send a person to college then to prison for life. A person is much more likely to become a functional member of society if they are educated than incarcerated.
As I said before, lawmakers who can make the needed changes to the law don’t become elected because they want to think carefully about issues. Appealing to people’s fears and base emotions are the surest ways to get votes. It is an outrage that more Congressmen and women aren’t discussing this issue. I encourage everyone reading this to contact their Congressional representatives and write letters to their local newspapers.