We have previously discussed that one of the primary aims of the American criminal justice system is to hold criminal offenders appropriately accountable for their actions. Tragically, decades of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and other “tough on crime” approaches have produced punishments that are often grossly disproportionate to the criminal wrongdoing of low-level convicted offenders.
A large number of individuals serving life behind bars are individuals who have been convicted of low-level and non-violent drug crimes. Certainly, criminal laws should be enforced and those who break these laws should in some way be held accountable for their actions. But, during an age in which study after study indicates that lengthy prison sentences serve neither the low-level, non-violent offender nor the taxpayers’ best interests, life-long sentences for these kinds of crimes are increasingly illogical and are becoming nearly impossible to justify.
According to the New York Times, nearly 3,300 prisoners were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for low-level, non-violent property and drug crimes in 2012. If the justice system approached these cases with the goals of rehabilitating offenders and outfitting them with the tools to live lives free of crime instead of locking them away for life, society generally and taxpayers specifically would benefit tremendously.
The ultimate aim of the criminal justice system is evident in its very title. If the sentences that offenders are being assigned are not just and proportional to their crimes, something in the system has broken. The fact that thousands of low-level and non-violent drug and property crime offenders are currently sentenced to die in prison is certainly evidence that justice is currently absent in the sentencing of these individuals.
Source: New York Times, “Sentenced to a Slow Death,” Nov. 16, 2013