The Department of Justice is many things, however flexible and honest enough to examine its own failed policies is often not one of them. While Eric Holder has a very unfavorable view in the eyes of many and is politically divisive, this is something that is gaining bi-partisan attention that many from both sides of the isle can get behind.

On August 12th, Eric Holder stated:

“We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken, and with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget. A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities; in many aspects, our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them.”

Mr. Holder does have a point. Mandatory sentencing has received harsh criticism over the years, and has been a matter of great debate. Recently, the movie “Snitch” starring Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock,” tackled the issues of mandatory sentencing. Based on a true story, the plot revolves around a father gaining access to the criminal world to become an informant in order to get his son released from dubious drug charges.

How prevalent are non-violent drug offenders in jamming up the criminal justice system? Take into consideration the following provided by Time Magazine:

In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.

That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.”

These figures are staggering. To put into perspective how crowded our prisons really are, take a look at the following numbers:

“The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain–with a rate among the highest–has 153. Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show, The 700 Club, “We here in America make up 5% of the world’s population but we make up 25% of the [world’s] jailed prisoners.”

So far we have seen no improvement in the “war on drugs” or its ability to curb crime. The idea that we can incarcerate our way out of this issue has become a plague in this nation. The numbers prove it.

The problem with mandatory sentencing laws is that they leave no room for spirit of the law or discretion. Just as the police officer has discretion which is a huge factor in how law is applied ethically and justly.  So, too is discretion in the courts. Without it, judges are left with no choice but to lock up individuals who pose no threat on society. This will drain the tax payer, thus becoming a burden in the end.

Take for example, a man by the name of Chris Williams.

Chris and his partners ran a cannabis farm in Montana. When the Obama Administration stated it would not go after people who were “compliant within their state’s laws” Chris and his colleagues took it to heart. They paid their fees to the state, got their license to operate in Montana, and began growing for the local population who were card holders for medical marijuana.

So, did the administration keep their word? Not exactly. Chris’s farm was raided by the DEA and he was arrested along with his partners. Of all those arrested, he is the only one who chose to plead not guilty.

 He is the only defendant arrested as a result of those raids who has refused to plead guilty. One of his partners, Tom Daubert, received probation; another, Chris Lindsey, reached a similar deal but has not been sentenced yet” 

One of his partners, Richard Flor, an older man with ill health was sentenced to 5 years in a federal prison. While in federal custody, Richard passed away from his ailments.

When Chris refused to plead guilty, he was charged with mandatory sentencing laws, including laws that are out of the scope of how they were applied here,

“Chris Williams, a partner in Montana Cannabis, faces a prison sentence of 80 to 92 years for supplying patients with marijuana—and for insisting on his right to a trial.

What explains this astonishing range of penalties, from zero prison time to nearly a century? Mandatory minimums. Specifically, prosecutors charged Williams, after he turned down a series of plea deals, with four counts of using firearms in furtherance of a drug crime, based on pistols and shotguns kept at the Helena grow operation where he worked. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum penalty for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Furthermore, the sentences must be served consecutively. Hence Williams, who was convicted of all four gun charges, will get at least 80 years when he is sentenced in January, even though he was not charged with wielding the guns, let alone hurting anyone with them. In fact, having the guns around would have been perfectly legal had he not been growing marijuana

Chris believed he was in compliance with state law. He refused to admit guilt for the alleged crimes. His charges had been severely trumped up, including firearms laws originally designed for violent offenders.

Mandatory sentencing resulted in a draconian application of the law. What are we hoping to achieve by placing men like Chris in prison? Are we doing this for a legitimate threat he posed to his community, or is he being imprisoned as an example?

His kids are left without a father and his wife a husband. It’s easy to say “he knew the risk.” However, is imprisoning people like Chris who made every effort to conform with state law the people we want to be throwing in prison?  There is a big disconnect between the law and what we are trying to achieve in how we are enforcing it.

What we do know today is that the drug war is an utter failure. To continue to use a draconian approach to push failed policies is solving nothing and only further disbands a population who otherwise would be productive society members. The time for drug policy reform has been long overdue.  Hopefully with some honest debate, we can come to a more sensible means of “protecting” our society. The people on the frontlines of this issue are our mothers, fathers, sons and daughters; they are us, which in turn has become not a war on “drugs,” but a war on people.

Nick is a former Arizona police officer and deputy.  He is a Kaplan University Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security major, recently graduating with highest honors.  Nick is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Golden Key International Honor Society, Alpha Betta Kappa Honor Society, and Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society. He has appeared as an expert commentator on Fox News Radio, and has been published in academic journals as well as Police One. Nick Can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Dialn0911

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