Examining The Incarceration Policy And Parole Criminology Essay

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Determinate sentencing is a fixed period of incarceration without the possibility of parole. Mandatory minimum sentencing, one aspect of determinate sentencing, was established in the 1980s in juxtaposition with America's War on Drugs (Price). With this type of sentencing, however, there is no potential for sentence reduction, and juries are not to be informed of the mandatory minimum for a case seeing as their job is to simply determine guilt or innocence. Many states have adopted mandatory sentencing policies for crimes including, but not limited to, driving under the influence, crimes with a dangerous weapon, and most commonly drug offenses. According to Beccaria, a strong implication of deterrence follows the success of three important factors: certainty, celerity, and severity. Two of these elements, certainty and severity, are guaranteed with the insinuation of mandatory minimum sentencing. He argues that humans are rational and self-interested beings who will ultimately link the commission of a criminal act to some type of cost or pain (P&B). If this holds true, one can assume that incarceration is only effective if the prisoner would otherwise commit a criminal act and if he is not replaced by other criminals. Upon careful analysis of incarceration rates and further analysis of deterrence, it is evident that by supporting this theory alone, we allow judges to stray from the law of parsimony and ultimately place unnecessary strains on otherwise productive members of society.

I believe the intended purpose of the enforcement of mandatory minimums was to enforce a "get tough on crime" approach, eliminate any possible bias on the part of the judge, to force deterrence upon the general public, and to provide equal punishment with absolute certainty to all criminals who commit the same crimes. Unfortunately these sentence guidelines do not allow a judge to take into consideration the first time offender, differentiate the level of deviance across cases, and it does not allow for the judge to tailor a punishment to each individual case "in light of the crime and mitigating or aggravating factors" (Price). Mandatory minimum sentences may end up filling our jails with a bunch of petty criminals, many of which are drug offenders who were or have the potential to be otherwise productive members of society. This strongly defies the beliefs of early criminologists Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, who fervently believed that "punishment ought in no case to be more than what is necessary to bring it into conformity", and whose works inspired the reformers who initiated the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 which will be further discussed in my proposition (Price). Changes need to be made to mandatory minimum sentencing implications in order to alleviate the overcrowding in the United States' prisons, alleviate the pressures imposed on state budgets due to overwhelming corrections costs, and successfully deter the public from committing criminal acts while keeping innocent people from facing incarceration.

It has been evident that, over the past thirty years, the American criminal justice system has seen a steady rise in the prison population across many locales (Vinegrad). This is a direct parallel with the mandatory minimum sentencing legislation that has since been implicated. The United States judicial system has always recognized that one is innocent until proven guilty and that the punishment will fit the crime. Our laws and punishments, when compared to other countries, seemed fair and even just… until mandatory minimum sentencing became the norm specifically to give drug offenders harsher punishments and maintain safety on the streets (Mascharka). Judges have no choice, or very little choice, when handing down a sentence to convicted drug offenders because of the mandatory minimum sentencing restriction. In addition to the high-level drug dealers being convicted and sentenced, first-time offenders and low-level drug dealers are serving mandatory sentences of up to twenty-five years in prison (Mascharka). With more and more drug offenders serving mandatory sentences, the prison population has increased and is still increasing dramatically (Price). Determinate sentencing seems like a rational idea in theory, in terms of creating a safer atmosphere on city streets, but it has many shortcomings.

The evils and assets of determinate sentencing depend mainly on the theory of punishment that you choose to embrace along with your own definition of "justice". For example, determinate sentencing can be viewed as a positive decision if you are headed toward the goal of general deterrence because it increases public awareness in terms of what the punishment may be for a given crime; this ultimately guarantees the element of certainty in Beccaria's theories (P&B). Some people might adopt the belief that determinate sentencing and mandatory minimums will increase "justice" in sentencing by way of reducing the discretion and bias of individual judges and, in some cases, juries. Many take on this view because they believe that some judges and juries may tend to lean in favor of harsher sentences than would others, may be sensitive or sympathetic to certain races or genders, or may consider inappropriate or immaterial factors in making the sentencing decision to satisfy their personal biases.

Advocates of mandatory minimum sentencing would argue that, with determinate sentencing, there is at the very least, consistency. The problem with this argument is that consistency may not hold the same weight as justice, fairness, or parsimony. Although discretion might introduce prejudice into sentencing, discretion also allows for individualized determinations by judges, which better fit the defendant's blameworthiness and allows for punishment to take on a more therapeutic approach. This was extremely prominent during the time in which indeterminate sentencing was being practiced; this was "the stage of constitutional rights, formal evidentiary rules, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt" (Gertner). When viewed in retrospective, the broad scope of indeterminate sentencing and the inclusion of criminal rehabilitation seem to be fair and easily favored. In cases that lack the constraints of mandatory minimums, the judge can consider the defendant's mental state, testimony, background, and individual circumstances; it is all of these things that determinate sentences often fail to account for.

"When 19 year old Hope Sykes [a resident of Satsuma, Florida] was sentenced in April to 15 years in prison for drug trafficking, she looked stunned. Then she cried" (Swirko). Florida is among the toughest states in terms of its mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Offenders, like Sykes, are given a determinate sentence, dependent on the crime committed, and placed behind bars without the opportunity for early release even by earning good time credits. Sykes will spend 15 years in prison for selling 25 hydrocodone pills to an undercover police officer (Swirko). Her mandatory minimum sentence is just that: mandatory. And it applies to her co-conspirators as well, who will also serve at least 15 years, even though they were merely "peripheral players in [her] drug conspiracy" (Price).

This type of sentencing is popular among crimes such as drug dealing, gun crimes, and sex crimes involving children or minors. Because of the strict enforcement of this clause, prison population in Florida is swelling (Swirko). There is simply no room for a law like this. Many people argue, in addition, that this policy raises questions in terms of finances, fairness, and sheer effectiveness. In one example, we have Gardner, an 18 year old female who plead no contest to manslaughter and battery serving a 6 year sentence and Myhree, a 23 year old male, who was charged for vehicular manslaughter serving a measly one year sentence. All the while, a petty drug crime landed Sykes with a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison (Swirko). The public has expressed mixed views on the mandatory minimum sentencing policy of the state of Florida. Some of the argued benefits include certainty of punishment, addressing the issue of disparities between sentences for relatively similar crimes, and its effective nature of deterrence. These may hold true to some extent; however, the negative aspects of determinate sentencing carry a heavy weight. First, we see that the individual characteristics and factual details fail to carry weight when viewed on a case to case basis. Mandatory minimums deprive the judges of their ability to examine each case for what it is worth in order to determine a proper, or ethical, punishment. The second major flaw in mandatory minimum sentencing in Florida is the sheer magnitude of the cost to put people in prisons and keep them there for extended periods of time. On average, the Florida criminal justice system places 5,135 inmates with mandatory minimums for drug crimes behind bars yearly. It costs, within a small margin, $20,108 to keep one single inmate in prison for a full year (Swirko). Is the $103 million per year really worth the laziness and injustice of mandatory minimum policy implication?

The earliest implications of determinate sentencing, specifically mandatory minimums, surfaced with the enforcement of the Crimes Act of 1790. Many of the punishments have since been abolished, but the underlying concept is still being heavily practiced. In the mid-1980s, in lieu of the crack cocaine epidemic as well as the rising rate of drug-related crimes such as homicides, a series of new regulations were enacted. These new laws were co-dependent on the type and amount of drug involved in the crime; the sentence was enhanced if guns were involved in the crime. All in all "there are currently about 200 federal mandatory minimum statutes, 150 of which have been added in the last 30 years" (Vinegrad). In a relatively recent attempt to introduce elements of fairness, we can see that, "riddled throughout this drastic increase in [statutes] are congressional efforts to mitigate some sentencing provisions' rigidly harsh effects" (Vinegrad). After careful review of the harsh policy, in addition to much deliberation over the popular accusation that mandatory minimum sentences were unjust, a "safety valve" statute was put into effect in 1994 for certain lower-level, non-violent offenses. Although this attempt to ease the minds of the public and alleviate the insensitive implications of the policy is now in place, evidence of the "safety valve" in criminal trials is few and far between. Only 5% of circumstances offer the judge any discretion to alleviate the mandatory minimum (Vinegrad). These efforts seem meaningless, as glimmers of hope are extremely few and far between. The general trend across various articles seems to be that determinate sentencing has had many unintended consequences (Mascharka).

Upon methodical revision of the mandatory minimum policy, I have decided that it would benefit the criminal justice system and also society to take the necessary steps to reevaluate and possibly reinstate certain elements of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, repeal mandatory minimums, and enforce a sentencing commission. The SRA created a sentencing commission whose role was to create thorough guidelines for the judge to use while determining sentences of various crimes. Said sentencing commission should act as an advisory board; their decisions will carry the most weight, and the "judges' power to depart [is] intended to be used sparingly" (Gertner). This will ensure that certainty and uniformity be maintained in sentencing, but will allow for proportionality and parsimony, which is "the core congressional command that the sentence not exceed that necessary to comply with the purposes of the punishment" (Price). Crimes should reflect the seriousness of the crime as well as the motivation of the offender; this objective will be at the heart of the sentencing commission.

Conclusively, mandatory minimum sentencing policy is inundated with problems and has led to astonishing injustice that spans from the moment of incarceration and far beyond the discharge of the unduly convicted back into society. I suggest that funding be provided to drug courts, that first-time, nonviolent offenders be given a chance to serve their punitive sentence in a rehabilitation program, and that improvement be made to ex-offender employment and counseling opportunities in hopes that this will reduce the repercussions of labeling theory and alleviate some of the pains in conjunction with being reintegrated into society.