The American Bar Association is a highly-respected group of 400,000 lawyers whose opinions carry clout. The organization is poised next month to vote on a new policy statement that calls for an end to mandatory minimum prison sentencing. They believe the mandatory minimums have not delivered on the promise of reduced crime. And the ABA is both right and yet tragically naive and misguided.
The Bar Association points to the massive build-up in the prison population of this country as evidence that minimum sentences are straining the prison system while showing little evidence of reducing crime.
For example, the ABA points out that states and the federal government spent $9 billion on jails and prisons in 1982 and $49 billion in 1999, a 400 percent increase. They also report that the likelihood someone will go to prison has tripled between 1974 and 2001. The Bar Association puts all of the blame on the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in place in several states. They are missing the most important social ingredient of all.
The ABA wants to eliminate minimum sentencing as a way to better reflect the true nature of crimes. And they do have a valid argument. But the explosion of the prison population in the past 30 years is directly attributable to the growth of drugs - particularly cocaine - in our society. The overwhelming majority of prison inmates are there because of drug violations. Why blame minimum sentencing when it's drugs that put the inmates in prison in the first place?
I too see flaws in minimum sentencing because it eliminates all other factors in the case. It removes the discretion of the judge in handing out appropriate punishment and without a doubt, it burdens the prison system.
But let's not fool ourselves. It's cocaine that is driving the prison population and until that menace is removed from society, prison populations will continue to grow with or without mandatory sentencing. The ABA talks of racial differences in the prison population but they never mention crack cocaine. That blind approach is an injustice for such a respected organization.
I have no fear of re-examining mandatory sentencing. But I also believe background will clearly show that cocaine is the culprit not mandatory minimum sentences. You do the math and you'll see what I mean.