In January, President Trump declared, “We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States,” and last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions took steps to do just that. Sessions released a directive on May 10 asking federal prosecutors to seek the “most serious, readily provable offense.” The directive encourages the use of mandatory minimum sentencing, which is a shift away from former Attorney General Eric Holder’s crime policy that sought to reduce the number of people in federal prisons and reduce the use of mandatory minimums for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.
Mandatory minimums are legislated, mandatory sentences for federal and state crimes that judges are required to impose upon offenders for violent or drug-related crimes. Because the sentences for so many crimes are pre-set, prosecutors end up with more influence than judges over the sentence an offender receives because they control what the offender will be charged with and therefore the length of the sentence.
Mandatory minimums were intended to ensure that those convicted of crime are sentenced consistently and equitably by various judges across state borders and diverse legal jurisdictions. Ironically, the requirements put in place to create equality throughout the justice system have in fact created consistent inequality because they do not allow judges to look at the circumstances surrounding a crime or the person who committed the crime when determining a sentence. Sessions’ directive continues to require judges to dole out harsh, cookie-cutter sentences, even against their better judgment.
In his book Just Mercy, defense attorney Bryan Stevenson writes, “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” However, Mandatory minimum sentencing, originally intended to equitably produce justice, in practice creates consistent injustice.
“An Eye for An Eye”
As God taught the Israelites how they should live and conduct themselves as His holy people, he taught them the principle of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This often-taken-out-of-context principle does not literally require the perpetrator to lose a tooth or an eye, but calls for a recompense equivalent to the crime. For example, possessing marijuana is not as dangerous for society as driving drunk; therefore, the consequences for these two crimes should be different. However, under the policy of mandatory minimums, time in prison and fines quickly rack up for drug crimes, especially after a first offense and if there are multiple charges.
These two conditions increase the minimum sentence and can result in a sentence that is not proportional to the crime. Justice requires that each crime is recompensed in a manner proportional to the crime committed, but the justice system fails to do justice when the offender is charged with a sentence that is unequal to the crime.
Professor of Criminal Law Erik Luna testified to the United States Sentencing Commission that: “Mandatory minimums eliminate judicial discretion to impose a prison term lower than the statutory floor, making case-specific information about the offense and offender irrelevant, at least to the extent that these facts might call for a below-minimum sentence. For this reason, mandatory minimums are indifferent to proportionality concerns and can pierce retributive boundaries through obligatory punishment.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing is particularly unjust for some of the most vulnerable people, children, those with mental health issues, and nonviolent drug addicts because their circumstances and health cannot be taken into consideration.
Mandatory minimums are especially devastating for children caught up in the adult justice system because they do not allow judges to issue more appropriate sentences. Children are more easily rehabilitated, but long periods of incarceration can inhibit rehabilitation and even cause them to fall behind in school, setting them at a disadvantage to their peers. Mandatory minimums do not allow judges to take this into account.
Similarly, mandatory minimum sentences fail to provide just sentences for those with mental health issues. The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights reports that, “The lack of sufficient community-based treatment options has instead resulted in the drastic increase in the incarceration of the people with mental illness.” Incarceration exacerbates mental illness.
Just as mandatory minimums fail to achieve justice for those with mental illness, they fail to achieve justice for nonviolent drug addicts. Nonviolent drug addicts do not receive the rehabilitation they need when they are sentenced to prison for years. Rather than addressing the problems they face, incarceration pulls addicts, those struggling with mental illness, and children away from all societal support and puts them at an even greater disadvantage.
Federal mandatory minimum charges may seem appropriate when drafted in marble-ensconced offices, but in the courtroom many judges find them lacking. Judge Mark W. Bennett laments that he has “sent 1,092 of [his] fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release. The majority of these women, men, and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts.”
A Different Approach
As Christian citizens, we appeal to God for justice. We have been placed under the authority of government by God, and government serves its God-given purpose when it upholds public justice. Justice requires us to recognize each human being as created in the image of God and of inherent value and worth. It also requires for there to be fair judgement, fair penalties, and fair treatment of offenders. When the government fails to execute justice we are compelled to speak up.
As Christian citizens, we can look at the model some states have put in place to limit the injustice of mandatory minimums and advocate for similar just policies in our own states. In the last year, Maryland has eliminated mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. Other states like South Carolina and Rhode Island have enacted similar policies that have removed some drug mandatory minimum sentences.
Incarcerating individuals without considering their circumstances and without regard for their inherent worth is unjust. As Christians, we know we are not defined by our sin. We are children of God who have not only been forgiven but redeemed. Human identity is not defined by actions; it is defined in relation to God.
The Church has a responsibility to care for all people. One way churches do this is by building up their communities. Rather than only trying to reduce crime by changing the definition of what will be prosecuted (as attorney generals past and present have done), we should begin by looking at the root causes of crime. We must connect those at risk of committing a crime with people who care about them and can provide the resources they need. Community-based alternatives can have a positive impact on the lives of offenders and have even been shown to reduce recidivism rates.
Some crime, not all, is linked to mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty. Churches are able to provide for those who struggle with these realities or direct them to organizations that can help them. By caring for people in their community, churches fulfill God’s call to be His “hands and feet,” embodying what Jesus said: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Christian citizens should work to partner with their communities and the government to address the root causes of crime. We are called to advocate for a more just justice system — one that sees offenders as people made in the image of God.
-Emily Fromke is a junior political science student at Wheaton College (IL) where she serves as the Editor in Chief of The Wheaton Record. She is currently an intern at The Center for Public Justice.