The Supreme Court recently decided to give more leeway and discretion to judges imposing sentences for federal crimes that have mandatory minimum sentences. The sentences for crack cocaine seem particularly harsh to many, but the discretion can be used for other crimes as well.
What does this have to do with OR? Well, minimum sentences not only impose stiff penalties on criminals, but they also result in more people being in jail (see this chart). Al Blumstein has published in the area of criminal justice extensively (see my posts about him here and here) and has argued against minimum sentences. Read his testimony here and read his article in Federal Sentencing Reporter here. In addition to being costly, having so many prisoners have high social costs and unintended consequences. For example, the Chicago Tribune reports that nonviolent drug offenses are overwhelming the criminal justice system. Not a surprise.
If you want to learn more about prisoners and our criminal justice system, check out the fascinating Act V podcast episode of This American Life that details the story of prison inmates performing Hamlet (about an hour), and a 60 Minutes piece about maximum security prisoners earning college degrees.
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