Last night, John Oliver went on his Last Week Tonight program and spent a few moments going after mandatory minimum prison sentences that over time, have put people behind bars for decades or life, all for nonviolent offenses.
According to an article in Vox, Oliver told his audience, “Mandatory minimums require judges to punish certain crimes with a minimum number of years in prison regardless of context, which is a little strange, because context is important. For instance, shouting the phrase ‘I’m coming!’ is fine when catching a bus, but not okay when you’re already on the bus.”
Oliver went through ways that this policy has failed, including mass incarceration to a lack of evidence showing that this policy helped reduce crime. He pointed out how since 1980, the prison population in the entire US has more than quadrupled and some of that can clearly be pointed at harsher drug sentencing laws, especially at the federal level. Oliver explained, “We have 2 million people incarcerated. If we keep going this direction, we’ll soon have enough to populate an entire new country with prisoners.”
Oliver also talked about the congressional testimony of Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now is against them. Ring told Congress, “Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn’t think they were going to get caught. So you can make the severity off the charts — you can do a life sentence for jaywalking — it’s not going to stop it.” Research also shows that more incarceration only contributed to a small portion of the nationwide drop in crime since the 1990s. What’s worse, incarceration can also backfire and lead to more crime in the long run.
Oliver concluded his discussion by saying, “Drugs have hurt people, for sure. But the mandatory minimum sentencing laws designed to stop them have done way more harm than good.”