A recent poll showed that almost 80% of Americans are in favor of getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders. These are found in the federal government and a number of states, mostly for drug offenses. Perhaps the most famous of these mandatory minimum sentencing laws is California’s “Three Strikes” law that resulted in 25 years-to-life for stealing golf clubs and a slice of pizza, respectively.
Federalism and Sentencing
Many of these laws were enacted by the federal government in an effort to stem the violent crime associated with crack in the 80s. This lead to asinine laws led to laws like the “100-to-1” ratio that deemed possessing one gram of crack-cocaine to be as serious as possessing 100 grams of cocaine. Both drugs are identical — the only difference is the method of administration (smoking vs. snorting).
At issue here is whether judges should have the discretion to apply individual standards to each individual case. The problem is that many states follow the lead of the federal government when it comes to sentencing. The federal government also has a hand in “encouraging” states to toughen up certain laws by threatening to withhold federal money from states if they don’t follow suit. Therefore states feel compelled to enact their own draconian sentencing laws in an effort appear “tough on crime.”
The truth is that sentencing should be kept at the judicial level. These judges know the law and know how to apply it to individual cases. They are certainly no infallible, but they are far more knowledgeable than Washington bureaucrats. But when Washington controls the purse strings, Federalism suffers. The government should not exert undue influence over the states and should instead allow them to be experiments in democracy. This way, we the people can examine what works and what doesn’t and make policy decisions accordingly. This is how Federalism is supposed to work.