He continues: "Several years ago, I started visiting inmates I had sentenced in prison. It is deeply inspiring to see the positive changes most have made. Some definitely needed the wake-up call of a prison cell, but very few need more than two or three years behind bars. These men and women need intensive drug treatment, and most of the inmates I visit are working hard to turn their lives around. They are shocked--and glad--to see me, and it's important to them that people outside prison care about their progress. For far too many, I am their only visitor."
He continues: "If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison."
Judge Bennett concludes: "For years I have debriefed jurors after their verdicts. Northwest Iowa is one of the most conservative regions in the country, and these are people who, for the most part, think judges are too soft on crime. Yet, for all the times I've asked jurors after a drug conviction what they think a fair sentence would be, never has one given a figure even close to the mandatory minimum. It is always far lower. Like people who dislike Congress but like their Congress member, these jurors think the criminal justice system coddles criminals in the abstract--but when confronted by a real live defendant, even a "drug trafficker,' they never find a mandatory minimum sentence to be a just sentence."
We should be grateful to The Nation for publishing a scary piece on a subject many readers may find boring. And we should be equally grateful to Judge Bennett, who held the truth in higher esteem than the unexpressed views of many of his colleagues on the Court.