This Debate is Long Overdue

Ending mandatory minimums and handing judges back some discretion to, you know, actually judge, would go a long way towards ending a lot of injustice:

Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.

But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.

“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”

Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.

“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”

Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.

And the changes should be retroactive.

30 replies
  1. 1
    Maude says:

    And we used to condemn the Soviets for Gulags. This is the same thing.

  2. 2
    dewzke says:

    That is heartbreaking and bullshit. Fook, i don’t know what else to say.

  3. 3
    Jon says:

    Except when that discretion is used to—as it will inevitably be—systematically give minorities more time in prison. Or at least give white people less.

    The solution is to make things that don’t hurt people legal, not to give a bunch of Republican judges that no one contested a bunch of latitude to do things their way for life.

  4. 4
    Maude says:

    John, WP is having an upset with comments

  5. 5
    John Cole says:

    We just updated to a new WP version so it will probably have some hiccups for a couple days. Everyone calm down, fer chrissakes. Y’all act like your damned house is on fire “OMG I GOT A WP WARNING! RUN FOR THE HILLS”

  6. 6
    Ted & Hellen says:

    And the changes should be retroactive.


  7. 7
    Cassidy says:

    @John Cole: Oh, so you do pay attention.

  8. 8
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Federal judges HATE the sentencing guidelines. They take almost all discretion away from judges. Cases like this are a big part of it. Congress was worried that liberal judges would coddle criminals, but as it turns out even right-wing law, law-and-order judges hate not being able to tailor a sentence to fit the crime.

  9. 9
    shortstop says:

    @John Cole: Heh.

  10. 10
    kc says:

    @John Cole

    Ooh, I love it when you chastise us!

  11. 11
    Walker says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    We had liberal judges? When?

  12. 12
    Cassidy says:

    @kc: Perhaps he should have used that long stretch of nothing from last night to give advance warning. Just sayin’.

  13. 13
    Schlemizel says:

    When I lived in that toilet with palm trees there was a hot debate going on about what to do with killers and rapists. The prisons were stuffed full of “life w/o parole” kids busted with as little as 3 joints. Killers and rapists got life sentences but were released after serving only a few years under a system called “gain time”. Because prisons were so crowded and the state too cheap to raise any tax killers and rapists could walk free.

    The Lawton Chiles proposed a tax increase that would have amounted to $3.50 a year per Floridian and the goopers beat it down. Would have cost Lawton his job but the goopers picked a total moran to run against him – Jeb something or other who was so bad he lost a sure thing.

    This drug law insanity has cost many people their lives for no good reason

  14. 14
  15. 15
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Walker: Johnson and Carter appointees were pretty liberal.

  16. 16
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Mandatory sentences are all about looking good at election season, because fuck the people whose lives are ruined by them, they don’t (or can’t) vote anyway. That and the prison-industrial complex, aka The Welfare State White America Will Pay For.

    It’s no coincidence that this shit kicked into high gear with Reagan.

  17. 17
    A moocher says:

    Barbaric…when do you plan to start burning people at the stake, or torturing them to death…oh, wait.

    There is no point in simply blaming this on Republicans, because all y’all have been putting up with it gleefully for 40 years, and exporting at gun point every chance you got.

  18. 18
    Jay C says:


    We had liberal judges? When?

    Back when we had a “liberal media”, too: IOW, probably never – or seldom – but just often enough to give right-wingers a useful strawman to flog their own “tough on crime” bona fides.

  19. 19
    shortstop says:

    @A moocher:

    exporting at gun point

    I keep picturing someone loading sheaves of documents enumerating three-strikes legislation into Maersk containers while waving a pistol menacingly.

  20. 20
    Cassidy says:

    @A moocher: I haven’t been alive for 40 years. Just sayin’. That broad brush of dumbshit reeks of a little projection on your part.

  21. 21
    Tonal Crow says:


    Except when that discretion is used to—as it will inevitably be—systematically give minorities more time in prison. Or at least give white people less.
    The solution is to make things that don’t hurt people legal, not to give a bunch of Republican judges that no one contested a bunch of latitude to do things their way for life.

    This. Also too, please help realize this vision by contributing to the ACLU.

  22. 22
    Tonal Crow says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Congress was worried that liberal judges would coddle criminals.Republicans and “centrist” Democrats were worried that they would lose elections unless they identified a new bogeyman.


  23. 23
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Tonal Crow: That is a valid translation of what I wrote.

  24. 24
    MaxxLange says:

    About 15 years ago there was a great letter of resignation, over this issue, from a Federal Judge, reprinted in Harper’s. The sentence I remember from it was something like “I will not participate in the destruction of one more impoverished defendant”

  25. 25
    Recall says:

    Mr. Dickey said he had paid her to store the cocaine at her home. At the trial, other defendants said she was present during drug transactions conducted by Mr. Dickey and other dealers she dated, and sometimes delivered cash or crack for her boyfriends. Ms. George denied those accusations, which her lawyer argued were uncorroborated and self-serving. After the jury convicted her of being part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, she told the judge at her sentencing: “I just want to say I didn’t do it. I don’t want to be away from my kids.”

    Whatever the truth of the testimony against her, it certainly benefited the other defendants. Providing evidence to the prosecution is one of the few ways to avoid a mandatory sentence. Because the government formally credited the other defendants with “substantial assistance,” their sentences were all reduced to less than 15 years. Even though Mr. Dickey was the leader of the enterprise and had a much longer criminal record than Ms. George, he was freed five years ago.

    This part is fucked up as well.

  26. 26
    Baron Jrod of Keeblershire says:

    Que Mnemosyne to complain that we aren’t taking addiction seriously when we get outraged by this.

  27. 27
    rjv says:

    This Roger Vinson: Meet Judge Roger Vinson, the Man Who Ruled ‘Obamacare’ Unconstitutional

    Not sure what it says …

  28. 28
    Full Metal Wingnut says:

    Letting tens of thousands of blah people out at the same time! Good luck convincing republicans

  29. 29
    Full Metal Wingnut says:

    @Jon: Not necessarily. You can remove the floor but still maintain a ceiling.

  30. 30
    mclaren says:

    And for all you obots out there, your beloved Vice President Joe Biden is one of the main guys responsible for this insane unwinnable endless War on Drugs.

    Most people still don’t know that <A HREF="“>Joe Biden wrote the law in 1988 that created a national “Drug Czar.”

    And even today, after 40 years of failure in the insane and pointless War on Drugs, Joe Biden still fanatically opposes legalization even of marijuana.

    In fact, scumbag Joe Biden also loves the War on Drugs and continues to claim that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that inevitably leads people to move on to heroin and crystal meth…despite research studies that show marijuana isn’t a gateway drug.

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