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HBO’s John Oliver Skewers Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws
August 6, 2015
John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” has built a reputation for delivering the news in a way that highlights how ridiculous the American media can be — while making millions of viewers laugh at the same time.
On Sunday, July 26, however, Oliver decided to cover a much darker topic than the country’s ubiquitous obsession with pumpkin spice lattes: mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Lingering relics of the War on Drugs era, these laws have put millions of nonviolent offenders behind bars for inexplicably lengthy sentences since their implementation.
Oliver’s segment came after President Barack Obama granted clemency to 46 men and women who faced decades in prison for non-violent drug offenses — the highest number of commutations given in a single day since the 1960s. These prisoners will go free on November 10.
Despite the president’s noble intentions, Oliver said Obama’s commutations didn’t go far enough, quipping that they were â€œthe criminal justice version of Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen.â€
Because even if you have the best criminal defense lawyer, the binding, one-size-fits-all nature of mandatory minimums could well result in a life sentence for a seemingly minor offense
Today, one out of every 100 Americans –200 million people — are in prison, the most of any Western nation. In 2013 alone, 1,501,043 Americans were arrested for drug-related violations, which are the primary targets of mandatory minimum sentences.
Many people given mandatory minimum sentences are often innocent of the crimes for which they’re convicted, as well. In one recent survey of prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and other officials, it was revealed that 10,000 Americans are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes annually, 52% of which result from eyewitness misidentification. When the legal system is so rigid, there’s little that criminal defense lawyers can do.
â€œThere should be a lot more pardons and commutations,â€ Oliver said. â€œBut if we really want to address this problem permanently, we need states and the federal government, not just to repeal mandatory minimums going forward, but to also pass laws so that existing prisoners can apply for retroactively reduced sentences.”
Oliver’s sentiments echo those of prisoners and criminal defense lawyers everywhere — that these laws must be reversed. It’s unclear if or when legislation that reverses mandatory minimums will be passed. For now, it’s telling that a late-night TV host seems to be showing more concern for the issue than the lawmakers themselves.
â€œAlmost everyone has agreed that mandatory minimum laws were a mistake,â€ Oliver concluded. â€œAnd we cannot have a system where people are continuing to pay for that mistake.â€
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