Last week, the former New York City police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, spoke out against the common practice in the US justice system of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Kerik, who was once nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security, spent over three years in federal prisons following a tax fraud conviction in 2009. Kerik depicts his period of incarceration as being enlightening of the plight suffered by certain fellow prisoners; nonviolent drug offenders who received inordinately long sentences.
“If the American people and members of Congress saw what I saw,” Kerik declared, “there would be anger, there would be outrage, and there would be change.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing has long been a part of drug policy implementation in the U.S., however; prominent lawmakers and public advocates have recently begun coming out in favor of scrapping the practice.
Kerik’s support for reform joins that vocalized by Attorney General Eric Holder, who accurately observed that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
The reality of mandatory minimum sentencing permeates the justice system far deeper than many of us may be aware; in 2010, 58 percent of federal inmates were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence. That figure rises to over 65 percent when solely drug offense data is analyzed.
The statistics alone don’t demonstrate the true injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing. Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee insisting that this policy “needs to change,” and is “impossible to ignore when you hear the stories of the victims.”
Stories such as that of 46 year-old John Horner, who was sentenced to a mandatory 25-year term for selling prescription pain pills to a man he believed to be his friend, but was actually a police informant. Or 24 year-old Clarence Aaron who received three life sentences for his first criminal offense – introducing a drug supplier to a dealer for $1,500.
The draconian nature of mandatory minimum sentencing is an affront to the American value of justice. Additionally, the implementation of this policy has been continuously discriminatory towards people of color, and is significantly contributing to the perpetuation of racial division in the U.S.
During an interview, Bernard Kerik derided the idea that the justice system can “take these young black men out of Baltimore and D.C., give them a ten-year sentence for five grams of cocaine, and then believe that they’re going to return to society a better person […] when you give them no real rehabilitation.”
Department of Justice statistics show that 48 percent of current inmates were incarcerated for drug crimes, and that the nation’s current federal prison population has increased almost 790 percent since 1980. Ending mandatory minimum sentencing can reduce unnecessary incarceration, help courts deliver justice, and reduce the strain upon overpopulated prisons. However, political progress on the issue has been slow.
Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, praised Bernard Kerik’s support, and said, “he is simply shining a spotlight on a dark hole that policymakers never look into.”
Avinash Tharoor is a freelance journalist.