The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill last Wednesday that establishes mandatory sentencing minimums for gang-related crimes, the first step in a Republican-led movement to extend the scope of federal mandatory minimums since the Supreme Court ruled in January that judges did not have to adhere to federal sentencing guidelines. These minimums sidestep the ruling, however, replacing judicial discretion with generalized sentencing restrictions for serious crimes which cannot adequately address the nuances of individual cases. While support for the bill has fallen along party lines, Republicans must recognize that the sentencing for gang violence, along with other criminal acts, should be left to judges.

Pending Senate approval, the bill expands the definition of gang violence to include any group of three or more individuals committing two crimes, at least one being violent, and mandates a 10-year prison sentence for any such “gang crimes.” Harsher penalties are required for more severe acts, and the bill would expand the number of instances to which the death penalty could be applied. For 16- and 17-year-olds accused of gang violence, the bill authorizes that they be tried as adults, increasing the number of juveniles subject to the adult criminal justice system.

The passage of these minimums would worsen the overrepresentation of minorities in American prisons — according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 70 percent of those receiving mandatory sentences in 1999 were black or Latino. While Congress focuses on harsher sentences for gang crimes, white-collar financial crimes for which whites are overrepresented too often receive lenient treatment in court. Furthermore, the threat of these harsh sentences may motivate even innocent defendants to negotiate plea bargains rather than risk wrongful conviction in a jury trial.

Amidst the recent flurry of congressional attacks on supposed judicial activism such as congressional interference with the Terri Schiavo case, mandatory minimums unfairly restrict the power of judges to administer guidelines according to the severity of the crimes. Such legislation diverts the power to sentence criminals from the judiciary to Congress, weakening the federal separation of powers.

The United States prison population is already the world’s largest, and it has grown an average of 3.5 percent annually over the past 10 years despite significant drops in violent and property crimes. Mandatory minimums would only exacerbate the problem, especially if Congress approves pending bills that would establish mandatory minimums for drug offenses and violent crimes against judicial officials. While supporters claim the bill will act as a crime deterrent for young people, the money that the government will spend enforcing the longer prison sentences would be better spent on social programs that target poverty reduction and crime prevention.

Gang violence is a serious and growing problem, but it cannot be solved by simplistic “tough-on-crime” legislation; its root causes must be addressed and rehabilitation programs should be improved to reduce recidivism rates. Mandatory minimums are unfair and discriminatory, and they and will worsen overcrowding in prisons. The Senate rejected a similar bill last year, and it should do the same with this one. The signing of this bill into law would overload the penal system due to the eventual rise in inmates and subject convicts to unfair and discriminatory sentencing.

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