Mandatory Minimums Meet Des Moines

I like Des Moines as much as the next New Yorker. Maybe even more, given than I’ve had the pleasure of barbecue at Flying Mango. But knowing that its senator, Chuck Grassley, is doing everything possible to make sure that mandatory minimums aren’t altered by the Smarter Sentencing Act, rubs me the wrong way.  And as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley’s love of prosecutors and hatred of reform is a major stumbling block.

At op-ed in the Des Moines Register by two former federal prosecutors, J. Douglas McCullough and Eric Evenson, the former now serving as a North Carolina Court of Appeals judge, pitches Grassley’s position to his constituents.  It runs through the usual litany of how valuable mandatory minimums are to prosecutors as the means of coercing cooperation and pleas without being put to the crucible of trial to prove guilt.

There is no doubt that prosecutors adore mandatory minimums. It makes their job far easier, and since they believe that what they’re doing is right, that every person they prosecute it guilty, there can be no downside to “getting” the people they decide to get. As is the usual case, the government builds systems that don’t allow for the possibility that the government could be wrong.

That this is offered for the benefit of backing Grassley seems clear by this bone tossed his way:

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa delivered a speech in the Senate on the dangers of the “leniency industrial complex.” Senator Grassley noted a growing public misconception that mandatory sentences for drug offenders needed to be reduced: “The arguments for the Smarter Sentencing Act are merely a weak attempt to defend the indefensible.”

Not even the remotest effort at thought or argument in there. Sheer empty rhetoric, which captures Grassley’s position perfectly. And to prove it, they note the wonders mandatory minimums have performed for minority communities.

Opponents of mandatory sentencing claim that these sentences are racist, unfair and expensive. That is not true. Mandatory sentencing has helped to rescue communities of color from drug traffickers; mandatory sentencing is equally applied to all drug traffickers, regardless of  race,  gender and economic status; and, the cost of long prison sentences is minor when compared to the lives saved and the communities rescued as the result of their imposition.

Stop laughing. Prosecutors believe this stuff, which is their deeply held justification for telling themselves that they are saving society from the bad guys, even if means that every person ends up in prison to be saved from themselves.  No, they’re not good with irony.

But it’s not just that the two Grassley apologists run through the usual prosecutorial talking points about the glories of imprisonment, how the reduction in crime correlates with mandatory minimums, shifting control of sentencing from judges to prosecutors, and compelling decades of imprisonment, which they call a “reform,” without evidence of a causal connection.  Most know that correlation does not prove causation. If these guys know, they aren’t sharing it with the people of Des Moines.

And yet, they are not without their own prescription for curing the problem.

Instead of eliminating mandatory prison terms, why not institute meaningful reforms that will get to the root cause of drug trafficking? The majority of incarcerated drug traffickers we have interviewed were younger men who were the product of fatherless homes. The father is the first example of law and order for a young man.  The breakdown of family has done more to lead to our drug epidemic than perhaps any other single cause.

Lack of fathers. That’s the problem. More fathers is the solution. There’s that correlation/causation thingy again.  Of course, the majority of incarcerated “drug traffickers” (they’re all drug traffickers, because that makes nobodies who played a trivial role in a huge conspiracy sound mean and dangerous) breath air. Air is the problem. If we just deprive them of air, problem solved. Wait, they might not realize that syllogism if totally batshit crazy and do it.

But in case you missed the implications, all those kids raised by mothers alone or in pairs, the drug epidemic is your fault. You’re not doing your job:

Let’s focus on the causes of family breakdown, and the resulting failure to teach/instill good character in our young people.  Public schools could offer character instruction.  Religious institutions must be involved in teaching character and family/parental skills.

Since female parenting sucks because you fail to teach good character, whatever that means, the schools and churches need to pick up the slack. Problem solved.

What are the chances that Grassley’s proxies actually believe the nonsense they’re spewing?  Is logic really that elusive to them, such that they have no clue that grasping at one characteristic is meaningless in establishing a cause for the problem?  Not likely.

These aren’t stupid people. These are people who know how mandatory minimums have well-served to facilitate the prosecutorial function, and how without it, the machinery of coerced cooperation and guilty plea would grind to a halt. All of a sudden, defendants might take their cases to trial rather than say anything to save their butts from decades in prison.

Rather, this editorial reflects the expectation that the public is so clueless, so easily manipulated by fear, illogical argument, myths and an appeal to old-fashioned values, that they will buy this tripe and support their senator.  They think the people of Des Moines are morons. And by publishing this op-ed, it suggests that the Register thinks they might be right.

To their credit, the commenters to the op-ed largely see through the nonsense, particularly noting one incontrovertible argument: after nearly 40 years of the war on drugs, of mandatory minimums, of tough-on-crime rhetoric that plays to stupid fear, it hasn’t worked.

They may not know what the solution is, but they surely realize that doing the same failed things they’ve always done and expecting a different result in the future is nuts.  That could be said for re-electing Chuck Grassley as well, elected in 1981 to be the Republic Senator from Iowa, particularly given his lack of respect for the intelligence of his constituents as reflects by this idiotic op-ed.


21 thoughts on “Mandatory Minimums Meet Des Moines

  1. Tim Cushing

    “The majority of incarcerated drug traffickers we have interviewed were younger men who were the product of fatherless homes. The father is the first example of law and order for a young man. The breakdown of family has done more to lead to our drug epidemic than perhaps any other single cause.”

    Perhaps it’s time for the government to institute a societal Miranda warning.

    “If you do not have a father, one will be appointed for you free of charge… “

    1. SHG Post author

      Those “drug traffickers” in prison they interviewed? They’re the fathers. There’s a reason kids grow up without them.

  2. Wrongway

    Sometimes, it’s just good to read a rant.. this one was “Epic”..

    as an alternative to mandatory sentencing, what’s you opinion on letting a jury set the sentence ?? (I know this isn’t a popular idea, but it is an alternative answer..)

    1. SHG Post author

      Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy it when someone goes orthogonal from a post into a question that has nothing to do with the post but they find tangentially interesting? For my usual hourly fee, I would be happy to give you my opinion. Use the donate button on the right.

      1. losingtrader

        Why, yes, you have. It has something to do with your continually expressed desire for going into rabbit holes.
        Thou doth complain too much bout these rabbit holes.
        Next time, just remember …my beagle will be following you.

      2. Wrongway

        But you said yourself, that ‘Juries get it wrong’.. put the sentencing into the juries hands & presto! the ‘mandatory’ is gone.. not to mention that courts don’t like going against the verdict of a Jury.. there’s their (courts & the states) deniability..

    1. SHG Post author

      Are you a current prosecutor willing to come out publicly, under your real name, against mandatory minimums? I would admire your fortitude.

      1. Arctic_Attorney

        I am a current prosecutor opposed to mandatory minimums for anything other than murder. However, I’m a Canadian prosecutor and we’re required to pursue the minumum in all cases where it’s applicable, so it has the opposite effect with respect to plea bargains. As a result they’re generally unpopular among my colleagues.

        As for stating so publicly under my real name, I like my job and my employer keeps us on a tight leash with respect to disagreeing with their laws. Canadians don’t have a constitutional right to free speech that would allow me to so disagree without being fired. While that may make me a coward, it keeps me an employed coward.

        1. Marc not-R

          Risking admonishment for going off on an orthogonal tangent, it is not like prosecutors in the states can wield that right of free speech to make any sort of statement opposing mandatory minimums. See Garcetti v. Ceballos.

  3. John Neff

    I am sorry to say that Chuck Grassley is right when he says he is representing the views of his constituents. They do not support rehabilitation and who knows what they think about deterrence because it is never discussed. The strongly support incapacitation and retribution both prior and after expiration of sentence.
    The retribution ends when the subject dies. Tough on crime bills have passed with unanimous or near unanimous votes in the Iowa Legislature for many years.

      1. John Neff

        The rural voters have low risks of becoming crime victims but high vulnerability if they do and they have a very powerful lobby. The privileged white voter have low risk and vulnerability so they tend to be more liberal but they don’t put much if any pressure on the legislature. The unprivileged minorities and whites that live in high crime neighborhoods have both high risk and vulnerability and they are able to put pressure on the legislature simply by being in close proximity to the capital.

        Combine that with a high seniority senator who is the most influential outsider (or insider who knows) in the criminal justice system and you get draconian policies. I wish it were not the case but that is my view of the situation.

        1. John Barleycorn

          Chuck hasn’t polled at under 54% in twenty five years.

          Here is hoping some wise judges whisper in his ear before he decides buy a new pair of spurs.

  4. Bartleby the Scrivener

    I seem to remember from my class on Principles and Procedures of the Justice System that the goal of the justice system is rehabilitation and not punishment.

    That leads me to wonder how mandatory minimum sentences, ‘throw every possible charge at them to scare them into a plea’ prosecution strategies, ‘brand them with the scarlet letter F for the rest of their lives’ legislation, kangaroo grand juries, and offender registries contribute to offender rehabilitation.

    1. SHG Post author

      If that’s what they told you, ask for a refund. That’s not correct. The “goals” of sentencing are:

      1. General deterrence (sending a message);
      2. Specific deterrence (teaching the individual not to commit crime);
      3. Incapacitation (keeping the defendant out of commission);
      4. Rehabilitation (preparing the defendant to live a law-abiding life);
      5. Retribution (punishing the defendant for his crime).

      Their application varies from case to case, but all five are recognized as the justifications for imposing a criminal sentence.

  5. Jake DiMare

    I hate to say it, because I was screaming Yes! Yes! at my TV for an hour…But President Obama showing up on ‘Vice’ to decry the injustices in our criminal justice system was probably the worst thing he could do for the cause. Old Grassley’s timing is impeccable…

  6. Pingback: Criminal Justice Reform, Good And Hard | Simple Justice

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