Get tough on crime is a favorite political slogan of politicians, including those in the Sunshine State. Before he switched parties and was elected to the US House of Representatives, Charlie Crist was one of those politicians who used “get tough on crime” to advance his political career. He was even nicknamed “Chain gang Charlie”.
Yet, as Hillsborough County Attorney Andrew Warren points out, “Harsh financial penalties lead to vicious cycles of debt, driver’s license suspensions, and jail time, all of which drastically reduce a person’s chance of escaping poverty and undermine public safety.” This is not a necessarily popular opinion but it’s the right one. Penalties designed to curb crime have become little more than shackles around the necks, legs, and arms of those in our community who already have very little resources.
One might add mandatory minimum sentences for drug use rather than treatment to the list of laws that do more harm than good. Tough on crime is fine but we should be smart on crime as well. The AMA considers drug use a disease requiring treatment. So why then do we treat it with harsh criminal penalties. I’m not necessarily advocating for the decriminalization of drug use. However, we have to let judges use their discretion in sentencing rather than shackling them with mandatory minimum sentences. If drug use hasn’t turned someone into a criminal, incarceration for a long time certainly will.
The literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If he were alive today in the USA, he might add, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by looking at those society considers criminals and punishes them.” If our criminal justice system demonstrates overt bias against one segment of the population (i.e. poor people), we have a problem with our criminal justice system.