Nonviolent offenders don’t deserve life sentences

Mandatory minimums unfair, racist

Former Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd was sentenced to 15 years in prison today for his role in a drug operation allegedly spanning three states and an attempt to purchase massive quantities of cocaine and marijuana. While 15 years in jail is never an ideal outcome, Hurd was facing the possibility of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His case reignited an old debate about the severity of prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. An ACLU study released earlier this week found 3,200 such cases in federal and state prisons including 88 instances in South Carolina’s own prison system. While there are a select few exceptions, the vast majority of nonviolent offenders in the U.S. do not deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The ACLU found that the majority of these sentences were adjudicated based on mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Put simply, these laws are unfair and ineffective at best and at worst, use the guise of cleaning up our streets to enforce a race- and class-based segregation and fuel America’s massive prison industry. These laws allow for no clemency when faced with extenuating circumstances, which these cases often have. And while there are some dangerous criminals who might have been out of prison by now without these laws, there are also plenty of regular people who made some bad decisions and will now spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

A Think Progress article on this issue highlighted two cases, one of Chicago’s Jesse Webster who became involved in a drug deal where money never even changed hands but the co-defendants flipped on him. Ultimately, he was given life without parole as a part of a mandatory minimum law even though it was his first offense. It also mentioned the case of South Carolina’s own Anthony Jackson, who is serving a life sentence for stealing a wallet from a hotel room. This was his third conviction, guaranteeing him life without parole in the state. Like 65 percent of those given the sentence for nonviolent crimes, both of these men are African-American. The racial element of these laws cannot be ignored; like the majority of the aspects of the U.S. justice system these, they are clearly not color blind.

It’s time that the U.S. got creative with it’s criminal justice system. The war on drugs has been an abject failure; despite mass incarceration, drugs are just as prevalent as ever. Forcing drug-related offenders into an already crowded penal system is costly and counterintuitive. There are other ways to both punish and rehabilitate these offenders without putting an enormous strain on the resources allocated to prisons. While everyone cannot be rehabilitated, it’s worth the effort for the people that can be. Effectively ending someone’s life for what is, at least on the part of the offender, a victimless crime is completely unnecessary.


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