If you want to see how a political fad can lead to devastating consequences, look no further than the “mandatory minimum sentencing” laws that spread like a plague in the United States (and eventually the UK) in the 1990s. They were typified by “Three Strikes” laws that required very long prison stretches for repeat offenders, often regardless of the crimes committed. But “truth-in-sentencing” laws that restricted probation or early release, and outright prohibitions on parole, contributed to the trend towards more people spending longer prison sentences. Republicans in particular became addicted to such faddish prescriptions in the 1980s and 1990s, often as a byproduct of the “War on Drugs.” But “throw away the key” rhetoric was also common among Democrats wanting to show they were tough on crime (My former boss Georgia governor Zell Miller, in his 1994 re-election campaign, shamefully came out for a “Two Strikes” law on the highly substantive slogan that “You Only Get Three Strikes in Baseball.” Disgust at this mindless “toughness” led me to pen an extensive denunciation of mandatory-minimum laws in my contribution to the Progressive Policy Institute’s 1997 policy book, Building the Bridge).
In a review of a new research report on America’s bloated prison population at Vox, Ezra Klein shows that the role of mandatory-minimum laws has been considerably underappreciated:
Ultimately, the report’s authors say, the common denominator in both of the big causes of mass incarceration — more prisoners per arrest, and longer sentences per prisoner — is the harsher sentencing policies of the 1980s and 1990s. The report tells federal and state governments to take a hard look at the entire criminal justice system — but improving sentencing seems like the right place to start.
Unfortunately myths die hard. It’s no accident that some of the power of the Gun Lobby I wrote about earlier today is based on an entirely counter-factual belief that violent crime is perpetually on the rise, requiring law-abiding citizens who have despaired of any protection from liberal judges and outgunned cops to forcefully break the state’s monopoly on use of deadly force. Sentencing reform, although it enjoys significant renewed support on the Right, will have to overcome some deeply entrenched fears that no studies or statistics can rebut.