Mandatory Minimums

May 14, 2009

Justice and compassion: “A system of ‘law and order’ is the means by which Torah seeks to address this imbalance of power. The underlying goal, however, is not simply to ensure justice, but also to create within us a deeper sense of compassion. …[We] also grapple with how to pursue justice in the most compassionate manner possible. …It may be that justice has to be ‘blind,’ but this does not mean that justice should not have a heart. As we seek justice for those who wrong us – personally, communally, even nationally – it is important to seek a fair and equitable judgment, but sometimes justice is even better served with a healthy dose of forgiveness, flexibility, generosity and gentleness.”

This makes me think of Mandatory Minimums, the great West Wing episode (immediately following “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” and preceding “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”!) and the policy therein. Mandatory minimums are sentencing guidelines for crack users. They consist, to put it simply, of a grid or matrix in which you find your offender and the mandatory punishment. (i.e., a first-time offender is caught with a gram of crack; find first time and gram of crack on the chart then follow the line to its pre-designated punishment.) This is what the episode focuses on, making the claim that mandatory minimums are racist because most crack users are black and most cocaine users are white; the amount of crack that necessitates harsh punishment is far less than the amount of cocaine (Andy argues to Toby.) Throughout the episode, Bartlett and others hint at and bemoan the lack of judicial discretion in such cases; such grievances are raised in a later episode, this time with a much louder voice. The episode involves Donna reviewing the pardon applicants; she comes across one man who, in his youth, was arrested for and charged with drug possession. In between the time of his arrest and the time of his trial (several months, maybe even years – I don’t remember) the defendant cleaned up his act: He successfully completed rehab and made several other positive improvements. He was a first time offender and after his arrest was never again in trouble with the law – not even so much as a parking ticket. When recounting this story, Donna says that unfortunately the strict sentencing guidelines precluded the judge from considering any of these positive steps taken and was forced to sentence the young man to jail. Bartlett and the staff go on to curse the fact that we appoint judges to use their judgment and then we don’t allow them to do the very thing they were appointed for. Indeed.

Perhaps the next time this issue comes up, or when someone makes it come up by raising the issue in front of Congress or the President, religious groups will consider supporting ridding the judicial system of mandatory minimums and other such strict sentencing guidelines which do not allow for true judicial oversight. They do not allow for compassion in the justice. This, seemingly, goes against a fundamental religious tenant. “Abraham asks God, ‘Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ …Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another.’” I hope in the future organizations of faith and compassion will take up this cause and not be blinded by false political advertising.

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