As we now realize, the Congressional motto has been: build a system designed to lock-up offenders for as long as possible and promote harsh sentences as a deterrent to keep criminals off the street. This initiative was intended to “clean up” communities, promote public safety, and rid society forever of crime. We foolishly continue to aspire to some sort of utopia—a “wholly-compliant,” “violence-free,” community—an “Eden” if you will, that many in Congress believe is attainable regardless of the cost to the very society it is intended to serve.
Consider Charles Scott, Jr. who was sentenced to 51 years for 3 robberies, a sentence that was not directly attributed to the robberies themselves. His criminal acts of robbery would have accounted for an approximate Guidelines sentence of 6 years. The remaining 45 years resulted from the application of federal Guidelines enhancements designed to extend theft or drug-related sentences where a gun is identified “in connection with” the crime or the suspect at the time the crime took place regardless of that weapon’s physical location. The 924(c) enhancement has been the subject of extensive debate as most prosecutors and federal courts seem eager to stack a gun enhancement atop of a criminal offense or against multiple offenses in an effort to exponentially increase a sentence, even in cases where no gun was ever present or within proximity.
The term “gun-related” presents a broad-based array of direct and indirect connections between the crime and a weapon—some placing “proximity” of the gun far beyond reach. The 924(c) enhancement is often added (stacked) to crimes where no actual gun was brandished or even located within a 30, 50, or 100-mile proximity of the crime itself. A multitude of 924(c) enhancements have been added to cases involving a drug trafficking transaction that may have taken place across town in a Wal-Mart parking lot while a suspect’s personal weapon, intended only for self and family protection and kept safely in a bedside nightstand in his or her home, may later be discovered by investigators long after the drug arrest, adding decades to a prison term.
In Scott’s case, he never brandished or presented a weapon, and no one at the scene was ever injured. Nevertheless, he is serving half-a-century of additional imprisonment as a result of this unreasonable enhancement. Shockingly, had Scott actually used a gun to kill an individual, he would likely serve a sentence of just over 20 years as the average term for murder.
Marcus Major was involved in a string of robberies which certainly necessitated a term of imprisonment to redirect and rehabilitate his behavior. However, because his robberies included a weapon, the prosecution moved to “stack” his 924(c) enhancements and petition for a 743 year-and-3-month sentence (the three additional months must have been for “good measure”).
Addressing the subject of injustice as it relates to the 924(c) stacking laws, Kevin Ring, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, protests, “In a country with 340 million firearms, the idea that someone is not going to happen to be in possession of a gun if they commit a crime ... the law does not distinguish between someone who uses a gun to commit a crime, and someone who happens to be a gun owner. It’s a frustrating, stupid law.”
In some cases, several victims have even come forward to denounce such harsh and draconian sentences. DeVon Moss, who worked for years as a bank clerk, profiles what she perceives as abusive sentencing. As a bank teller, she wholly understands how an armed robbery can be a traumatizing event. Moss confesses, “I can understand how petrified a person could be, that this trauma will [stay] with them.” But she does not believe an offender should be locked up for life if no one was seriously hurt. Moss now runs a non-profit organization, Mercy Me 924(c), devoted to highlighting the severity in sentencing of “stacked” 924(c) cases.
A few brave souls now speak the language of reform. Most reformers, however, assume that politicians do not seek reform because they don’t care enough about the cause. What may be more likely is that most politicians don’t wish to go against the grain of the political narrative—a narrative that suggests society should fear anyone being released from prison regardless of their length of time served or their rehabilitation. It is political suicide for most lawmakers to pursue a “soft on crime” platform; after all, society has been inculcated since the 1980s to believe it is the duty and responsibility of our elected officials to protect us from dangerous criminals at any cost. The fact is, the longer these individuals serve, the greater the damage they experience from alienation and the shame associated with prison.
Unfortunately, empirical data and reform analysis never seem to enter the equation. There exists a prevalent assumption that criminals can never be adequately rehabilitated and that locking them away is more expedient (though by no means less expensive). The fact is empirical data show that those incarcerated more than five years begin to deteriorate socially and psychologically and have greater difficulty assimilating back into society than those who serve shorter terms of imprisonment—a model practiced throughout most of Europe.
Our justice system should take a lesson from more progressive countries like the Netherlands, where the incarcerated are subject to shorter terms of imprisonment (2-3 years), moved into community houses where they are required to work and maintain a household budget, and upon official release, find that their felony records are permanently sealed—a true second chance at life. After all, we in the U.S. are a nation of laws, but we are a nation of people first.
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