In the wake of a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman, many have first learned the story of Marissa Alexander, who was denied immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law after she fired a warning shot in an altercation with her abusive husband. Once Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault, the judge had no choice but to sentence her to 20 years in prison under the state’s mandatory minimum law. As commentators have pointed out, the seeming injustice of her story is as much the disproportionate duration of her sentence, as the fact that the state’s Stand Your Ground law did not spare her a conviction.
This month, the Department of Justice, judges, and individual prosecutors are all urging reform of overly harsh sentences – both in the form of mandatory minimums imposed by statute, and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which the U.S. Supreme Court has said are not technically mandatory, but that judges typically follow in their sentencing determinations.
“Violent crime in the United States is now near generational lows,” the DOJ’s Jonathan Wroblewski wrote in a report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “At the same time, the U.S. prison population exploded and overall criminal justice spending with it.”
Wrobkewski is urging the Sentencing Commission to change its guidelines and allow increased sentencing flexibility for less serious, non-violent charges, particularly drug and immigration offenders, which account for more than half of the federal prison population.
This week, some 50 judges and prosecutors expressed their support for a bipartisan Senate bill to allow judges more flexibility in sentencing crimes that now carry mandatory minimums.
“The bill would authorize federal courts to impose a prison sentence below the mandatory minimum in cases where the minimum is not necessary to protect the public, the defendant is not likely to re-offend, and in other situations where the minimum is unwarranted,” they write in their letter.
They add: “[W]e agree with Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent statement that, ‘Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.’ Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are chiefly responsible for this wasteful use of prison space because they fail to distinguish between violent, serious criminals and low-level, nonviolent offenders.”
Several other federal judges have already blasted mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines, opting on some occasions to even eschew federal guidance and dole out lesser sentences for low-level drug offenders. And a House bill introduced by a Utah Republican last week would facilitate early release for those prisoners least likely to pose a danger or re-offend.
The federal prison population has spiked 790 percent since 1980, thanks in large part to aggressive drug prosecutions and mandatory minimum sentences as part of the failed War on Drugs. Overcrowded prisons are not only overwhelming budgets and endangering both inmates and guards; they are also imposing the sort of disproportionate punishment on countless individuals like Alexander, who, whether or not they violated the law, are not serving the interests of the public or themselves by spending decades in jail.