Advocates for ending mass incarceration in New York are calling for the end of mandatory minimum sentences, which they argue gives prosecutors coercive power and leads to an overreliance on imprisonment. The push to amend prison sentencing measures represents an equally important “back-end” tool in reducing what experts deem a costly overreliance on imprisonment. They’re ramping up their call to end mandatory minimum sentences this year — a move that has gained traction among policy groups and Democrats nationwide, including President Joe Biden, who made it a focus of his 2020 presidential campaign.
“This has been a really noticeable gap in the conversation about necessary changes to the criminal legal system,” said Katie Schaffer, director of advocacy and organizing at the Center for Community Alternatives.
State and federal laws that mandate minimum sentences require judges to hand down prison terms of a certain length for people who are convicted of specific crimes, even if they believe lighter sentences would be more appropriate. Those who support changing sentencing regulations, which set mandatory minimums for crimes such as trafficking child pornography, argue they give prosecutors coercive power and that people who are accused of a crime will often accept guilty pleas to lesser charges that they might otherwise reject because they are scared of the minimum prison time a conviction on the higher charge carries.
A triumvirate of legislation proposed in the last year seeks to permanently change New York’s sentencing structure, primarily by ending the mandatory minimum sentences associated with state charges and allowing judges to retroactively review individuals’ sentences. Another bill would broaden the categories of convictions for which inmates can earn “good time” credit in prison that would then be set against their maximum prison term.
The proposed legislation would significantly decrease New York’s prison population, advocates say. Nationally, the U.S. has one of the largest prison populations in the world, according to the Vera Institute, a progressive-leaning advocacy and research organization. And 57 percent of the U.S. prison population was serving sentences of 10 or more years as of 2019, according to a report the organization released last week.
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