By Michael Maloney, Special for The Times USA.
Short of execution, life in prison without a chance of parole is the harshest punishment in our judicial system.
According to the ACLU approximately 79 percent of the 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole in the United States were sentenced to die in prison for non-violent crimes. Out of proportion to the crimes they seek to punish, 83.4 percent of these sentences for non-violent crimes were mandatory
Turning a blind eye to the principle that everyone has the right to be treated with respect for their inherent human dignity, minimum mandatory statutes leave judges with no choice in sentencing. Minimum mandatory sentences leave the judge with zero discretion to deliver a proper sentence on a case-by-case basis. The sentences are often harsh and long leaving many non-violent repeat offenders without the ability to work or find housing once they are finally released, pushing them further into the system. Due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules, harsh sentences including life without parole are unjustly mandated. Prosecutors have extensive power over a defendants’ fate. Whether or not to inflict unwarranted, overly harsh sentences is ultimately within the DA’s discretion.
America is a country essentially built upon second chances. However, for far too long the considerable over-dependence on incarceration has left little room for our justice system to demonstrate this. Due to a uniformly tenacious approach to punishment, a legacy of wasted human potential has disproportionately impacted minority families and poorer communities. Add to this, many individuals charged with non-violent crimes struggle with mental illness, drug dependency or financial troubles when they commit these crimes.
Back in the early 90’s the overwhelming consensus on how to deal with crime was through lengthy prison terms, even for non-violent offenses. But since then we’ve expanded our understanding of how criminal behavior changes, for better and worse. We now know that many low-level, non-violent offenders can break the cycle of imprisonment through alternative sanctions that allow for re-introduction as productive members of society who successfully can maintain a life free of crime. The proof is currently playing out in states such as Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania where justice reform is keeping crime rates low and cutting incarceration costs while still holding offenders accountable.
I would like to introduce some of these methods into our own Suffolk County DA’s office where individual circumstances are taken into account and override the minimum mandatory statutes of non-violent offenders.
Let me be very clear; violent, dangerous criminals will be locked up. Non-violent offenders most likely suffering from drug addiction, mental illness or financial distress, will be prosecuted through alternative sanctions, especially for juvenile defendants, that ensure those guilty of non-violent crimes pay their debt to society, but are in turn given the opportunity for reform and allowed to go on and lead crime-free lives.
Under my proposed reforms Suffolk County would utilize a criminal justice system that does more than indefinitely lock people away, devastating families and communities without a corresponding reduction in crime. If we harness the momentum for bold, progressive, responsible criminal justice reform, we can reshape our judicial system into a force for positive change that ultimately leads to an equally productive society with less incarceration for non-violent crimes. The overall goal would leave families and communities safely intact with less burden on our judicial system which can then focus on more serious, violent crimes.
Michael Maloney is an Independent Candidate for Suffolk County District Attorney.