No one knows whether locking up so many nonviolent drug offenders reduced crime rates, according to New York University law professor Rachel Barkow.
"This wonderful crime drop we're experiencing right now, sadly, criminologists can't tell you exactly why it's happening," Barkow told NPR. She also sits on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the group that sets sentencing guidelines for federal crimes.
To her young law students, Barkow says, she stresses this idea.
"Imagine if I gave you a four-year sentence that would mean your entire college stretch, you would be away in prison," she says. "You'd miss all those birthdays, you'd miss the passing of loved ones, you would miss things that happen in your family's lives that you can't get back."
Then, Barkow says, she asks her students to imagine going to prison for 10 years, or 20, or the rest of their lives — and whether those drug crimes fit that punishment.
Often mandatory minimum sentences are bargained away by the prosecutor.
In the current system, only 3 percent of federal cases ever go to trial. Brooklyn Federal Judge John Gleeson says prosecutors can use the threat of mandatory minimums to coerce guilty pleas and long sentences.
"Plea bargains are struck in the United States attorney's office — nobody sees them happen, there's no transparency," Gleeson told NPR. "Transparency in and of itself is a very important value in our system, and we don't have enough of it. The trials are disappearing."
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