If justice is blind in America, what place does such a
black-and-white practice as mandatory minimum sentencing have in
The Georgia State Supreme Court on Monday set Marcus Dixon free.
In 2003, Dixon was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation
and misdemeanor statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old
girl when he was 18. He had been serving the mandatory minimum
sentence of 10 years brought on by the molestation conviction.
I am not going to ponder whether or not justice was served on
Monday’s ruling. I am simply using this case to highlight the fact
that even after he was acquitted of the most serious crimes, an
18-year-old faced 10 years in prison because that sentence was the
minimum allowable time allotted under state law.
During his original trial, Dixon was also tried and acquitted of
the charges of rape, aggravated assault, sexual battery and false
Aggravated child molestation carries such a harsh penalty
because it was written to prosecute pedophiles. The practice of
mandatory minimum sentencing, however, does not allow for any
exceptions to be made for extraordinary cases like Dixon’s. This
means Dixon was prosecuted as a pedophile and not as an 18-year-old
commingling with a 15-year-old, an act that has openly taken place
at countless proms and sock hops since the beginning of time.
Before the advent of congressional mandatory minimum-sentencing
guidelines in the late 1980s, the sentencing of a convicted
criminal was left up to individual judges. When sentencing a
criminal, a judge takes into consideration variables like a prior
criminal record and mental heath, as well as the particulars of the
The practice of mandatory minimum sentencing now places
sentencing guidelines in the hands of prosecutors, who are the ones
with authority over which charges to seek against a defendant. As a
result, the judge responsible for a criminal’s formal sentencing
has little room in which to make exceptions for extraordinary
circumstances such as Dixon’s.
Because the judge’s hands are tied, innumerable people have been
given sentences far too harsh for the crime they committed. As a
consequence, our prison population has been expanding out of
control for the last 15 years.
It is a fact, according to homeoffice.gov, that the United
States of America incarcerates a larger number of people, both
total (1.96 million) and per capita (686 per 100,000), than any
other nation on the planet.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, as of February, 54.7
percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges
alone. African Americans make up just over 40 percent of the
population, even though they comprise only 12.9 percent of the
total U.S. population. Latino peoples comprise over 30 percent of
the prison population but only 12.5 percent of the total U.S.
Domestic violence and drug abuse have time and again been shown
to have equal rates of incidence across all socio-economic lines.
Why, then, are minorities over-represented in our prison
population? Might this phenomenon be indicative of some deeply
rooted inequity within our justice system, or is it deeper than
Since the introduction of mandatory minimums around 1990, the
United States’ prison population has nearly tripled. With such
sudden growth, the federal government dreamed up a housing solution
only an American would think of: privatization of the penal
The U.S. government pays private corporations tens of billions
per year to house inmates, and these corporations in turn entice
prisoners with early release if they work in the prison factory
making cheap furniture or gaskets or toys for around $2 per
Wait, so these companies get access to semi-skilled, mostly
literate, mostly American labor for $2 an hour? No! They’re getting
paid about 50 cents an hour to keep the prisoners busy! It’s like
having slaves, but cheaper!
Three of the four private corporations with links I checked on
the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
Web site posted share gains last week. It is these corporations and
their congressional lobby that not only helps convince Congress to
keep mandatory minimums, but also keeps funding the drug war.
Drug addicts need rehabilitation, not institutionalization.
Unfortunately, having an indentured servant for manufacturing is
infinitely more profitable than paying a rehabilitated laborer a
Our practice of using incarceration as a means of reform is both
morally bankrupt and ignorant of the problems it perpetuates. Of
all the melanomas currently afflicting contemporary American
society, I believe it is our flawed system of justice that is both
the most noxious and the most neglected.
Yet after an unsuccessful campaign to strike down mandatory
minimum sentencing during the late 1990s, it seems as though
America has come to accept this blemish on its character. Our
prisons continue to be filled over capacity, and we are attempting
to remedy this problem by building more prisons.
Enjoy your freedom this summer, and, oh, did I mention that
Marcus Dixon had a 3.96 GPA in high school and, at the time of the
“criminal” act, had already accepted an athletic scholarship to
Vanderbilt? And that he’s black, and his accuser is Caucasian?
Think about it.
This is Joe’s final column of the year but readers don’t fret,
Joe will be returning to the opinion page next year.