Recently our family experienced the awful ordeal of a family member going to a federal prison for 10 years for a nonviolent crime. This family member is not a terrible criminal. He is not a threat to society, he is a good person, father who made a bad mistake.
While we agree this family member needs to serve time, we feel that the law governing this sentence is unfair. The facts that we are sure most people do not know is about mandatory minimum sentences. This law has caused our prison populations to soar, leading to overcrowding, exorbitant costs and diversion of funds from law enforcement. This occurred after Congress enacted mandatory minimums for drug crimes in the 1980s which caused the federal prison populations to skyrocket.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We imprison more people than any other country in the world. In 1980, American taxpayers spent $540 million incarcerating 24,000 federal prisoners. Today we spend over $6.9 billion locking up more than 218,000 people in federal prisons, many of whom are nonviolent offenders who pose no threat to public safety.
Mandatory minimums disrupt the balance of justice by transferring power from impartial judges to prosecutors and politicians. These inflexible “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws may seem like a quick fix solution for crime, but they undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offense. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of federal and state crimes.
As taxpayers, we should know where our money is going. We need to take the time to learn about mandatory minimum sentencing laws, advocate for their repeal, and educate our citizens about this drain on our resources. We need more and more people to get educated about mandatory minimums and get involved in the fight for reform.
Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley are on the Senate committee fighting to reform our prison system. There is also a website called Families Against Maximum Minimums, this organization seeks to work for prison reform also.
Cheryl Altena, Storm Lake