In 1994, and with an incredible 72 percent in favor, Californians passed Proposition 184. This proposition strengthened a habitual offenders law that provides higher sentences for those with two previous convictions, should they be charged and convicted with a third crime. Leading the charge was a man named Mike Reynolds from Fresno. Reynolds’ life was turned around when a released convicted criminal killed his daughter, Kimber, in an attempted purse snatching. Prop 184, better known as California’s Three Strikes and You’re Out law, became the face of the mandatory minimums movement in the United States.
Laws such as the Three Strikes in California or 10-20-Life in Florida include mandatory minimums, which are guidelines requiring that certain minimum sentences be applied to particular crimes. These sentences increase if an offender repeats. Generally, these crimes are restricted to violent felonies: armed robbery, murder and sexual assault. However, there are also occasionally mandatory minimums for drug-related offenses, and these convictions are often the ones that generate headlines.
In 2002, for example, Weldon Angelos received a sentence of 55 years in prison as a 24-year-old for distribution of marijuana. His crime fell under mandatory sentencing guidelines because, in the course of the police’s investigation, an informant claimed that Angelos possessed a gun. The gun made his crimes “violent,” which allowed the prosecution to treat his crimes separately (known as “stacking”), causing him to serve three separate prison terms consecutively.
Angelos’ case attracted the public’s eye when the judge who sentenced him, Paul Cassel, offered this quote to “Nightline”: “If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’s been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right.”
Advocates of mandatory minimums point to the effect the laws have had on crime rates. By keeping the worst offenders locked up for longer, violent crime rates have dropped. Supporters argue that, by reducing the flexibility of sentencing and making clear sentences for future crimes, these laws deter crime.
Opponents of minimums have valid points as well. The data shows that mandatory minimums have disproportionally affected racial minorities, specifically the black and Hispanic communities in America. Opponents have also questioned the rigidity with which laws like Three Strikes are enforced. Leandro Andrade was arrested for two counts of petty theft of videotapes from K-Marts in California. However, Andrade had been convicted of a few other crimes in the past, including transporting marijuana and residential burglary. These prior convictions allowed the prosecution to consider the two petty theft charges felonies. This, plus his previous crimes and the Three Strikes law, gave Andrade two 25-to-life terms in prison.
Now, in the middle of an election season, discussion of mandatory minimums has surfaced along the campaign trails of various candidates. Their positions and plans, however, remain murky. Although mandatory minimums have cropped up a few times recently in pop culture (in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” and on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO), prison reform isn’t exactly a hot-button election issue. Most people seem to think that reform in some capacity is good; political icons across the political spectrum, from the Koch brothers to Bernie Sanders, agree that something needs to be done.
Recent presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley was the only candidate to really have laid out a comprehensive plan, but he dropped out of the race Sept. 21. Rand Paul has sponsored a number of bills in Congress on prison reform, and his interest in the issue is well documented. Hillary Clinton is one of the few candidates willing to name police militarization as a problem, but she is vague and noncommittal in her suggestions. And Sanders, who’s made a name for himself as a policy-centric politician, has nothing on his campaign website addressing this.
Going forward, it remains to be seen if minimums or, more broadly, police reform will become a more vocalized issue. So far, the results haven’t been promising. However, there is some life to considered reforms in Congress. This past July, the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus was formed, and some key leaders like GOP whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and co-chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) lead the way. Obama’s recent visit to Oklahoma to speak to inmates might indicate that the president intends to move on prison reform in the near future. Whatever form it may take, let’s hope the candidates and the government take a keener look at mandatory minimums.
Robert Danco is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Investigative Politics appears every other Wednesday on thehoya.com.
Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly identified Martin O’Malley as a Republican.