Over the last few years I’ve become a fairly staunch advocate for a complete overhaul of our criminal justice system. In particular, the way we treat drug and other non-violent offenses. While I’m not saying those who distribute, sell or traffic drugs shouldn’t face punishment, I just think it’s absurd how we’re literally ruining lives because of mistakes often linked to a person’s socioeconomic upbringing, which is often tied to poverty and the lack of a quality education. To hear about stories where some 20-year-old gets sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for selling a minuscule amount of drugs is appalling.
Just think about this for a moment: There are people serving longer prison sentences for minor drug offenses than some murderers, terrorists and rapists received. Then there are those who don’t even sell drugs, they just use them. One of the most idiotic things we do in this country is treat addicts like criminals. There’s a difference between a criminal and someone who breaks the law. Someone buying and using an illegal substance is breaking the law, no doubt, but that doesn’t immediately make them a dangerous criminal who shouldn’t be on our streets. That just makes them someone we need to help beat a psychological addiction to something that could be doing damage.
Well, last night John Oliver addressed one of the most controversial aspects to our criminal justice system – mandatory minimum sentences. These are laws that are put in place which doom people to ridiculously long prison sentences based on predetermined factors involved in a crime rather than the actual context of whatever crime(s) they commit.
One specific case Oliver pointed out concerned Weldon Angelos, a man who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana. Now, am I saying Angelos shouldn’t have faced some sort of punishment for illegally selling drugs? Of course not.
But I think 18 months to 2 years is more than an adequate punishment for someone unlawfully selling something that’s now legal in four states in our country. Angelos’ sentence was so absurd that even the judge who issued it disagreed with its length when he handed it out – but because of mandatory sentencing laws, he didn’t have a choice.
But he’s just one of tens of thousands of inmates currently serving prison sentences that essentially equate to cruel and unusual punishment. I’ll put it to you this way: My half-sister’s father was murdered just a couple of years ago – but because of a plea deal, his murderer will be out before Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced 13 years ago for selling marijuana.
These mandatory sentencing laws have been ruining lives since the 1980′s with countless people getting extremely lengthy or life sentences for non-violent crimes.
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