Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a number of much-needed changes to the criminal justice system, including reform of federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. It’s about time, and Connecticut lawmakers should sit up and pay attention.
The reform itself is less a change to mandatory minimums than a neat side-step. As Holder put it, according to prepared text from the Justice Department, it’s “. . . a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” This is welcome news for anyone who has been outraged over the way that mandatory minimums hamstring judges and unfairly impose lengthy sentences for minor crimes.
Mandatory minimums are a relic of a time when crime was much higher, and sentences were often inconsistent from judge to judge. A mandatory minimum sentence for a specific crime made a lot of sense. But now, as Holder pointed out, these kinds of minimums are partly to blame for the shocking, unsustainable explosion of prison population this country has seen over the past three decades.
Mandatory minimums also have led to gross miscarriages of justice. The group “Families Against Mandatory Minimums” woman now serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, and a man who received a life sentence for his first offense — at age 19. number of prisoners held in Connecticut’s facilities has, for a number of reasons, dropped from all-time highs in 2007 and 2008, but those levels are still high considering the drop in violent crime that’s occurred over the past decade. Also, the parole reforms enacted after the Cheshire murders in 2007 have contributed to the reversal of recent declines in prison population, meaning fewer prisoners are being released.
Activists, such as the Connecticut NAACP and ACLU, also hope that Holder’s new policies will help spur Connecticut to reform mandatory minimums, as well. Sadly, attempts to reform mandatory minimums in Connecticut have not been particularly successful. Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, and others have been pushing for small but significant reforms to mandatory minimums for years. One law desperately needing reform is one establishing stiffer penalties for infractions within “drug-free zones” around schools, daycares, and public housing. Because of how the law is written, these “drug-free zones” tend to encompass most of Connecticut’s most densely populated cities. There was momentum toward changing this law during the last session, but lawmakers were spooked by rhetoric about safety and the bill eventually died.
“There seems to be some notion that mandatory minimum sentences make us safer and that moving away from them makes us less safe,” Holder-Winfield said, highlighting a stale leftover from the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s. More people in prison doesn’t equal a safer or more just state, especially not when so many lives are being destroyed in the process.
Connecticut’s lawmakers must follow the Attorney General’s lead. Smaller prison populations, a focus on violent crime, and more leeway for judges in sentencing guidelines make sense, and have bipartisan support across the country. There is no reason why they can’t be implemented here. The next session of the legislature should put the fear-mongering aside and reform mandatory minimums.
Better yet, they should be repealed altogether.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.