By Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan
On April 27, the prison system was preparing to welcome another inmate. The convict was a 28-year old Nebraskan named Leo Guthmiller. A recovering addict, Leo was two years sober, working full-time, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program and a newlywed.
While on his way to a routine drug counseling session, Leo got arrested. It seems an ex-girlfriend, who was facing a stiff prison sentence herself, told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced her to his meth dealer years earlier. That introduction allowed prosecutors to charge Leo as part of a drug dealing conspiracy, triggering a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.
In a Lincoln courtroom, Guthmiller didn’t dispute the accusations against him, but questioned how a 10-year sentence would help him or make his community safer. The answer: it wouldn’t. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing, the judge in the case had no options. “A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous,” he said from the bench. “And the only reason I am imposing the sentence… is because I have to.”
Both the Nebraska and federal criminal justice systems have mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. In this case, Guthmiller was sentenced under the federal provision, but it could have easily been under the Nebraska sentencing law. Regardless, Guthmiller’s incarceration failed to benefit society in any way.
Leo’s story is an unfortunate example of why mandatory minimum sentences don’t accomplish much. Empirical research has shown that they fail to deter crime on the front end and contribute to prison overcrowding and skyrocketing costs borne by taxpayers on the back end. Moreover, mandatory minimums perversely undermine public safety by consuming resources law enforcement could otherwise spend targeting violent criminals. To the extent mandatory minimums have any value, it is far outweighed by the cost imposed on taxpayers, families, communities, and victims.
Mandatory minimums in Nebraska look worse when you consider the state’s prison system. Nebraska spends $36,000 to incarcerate each prisoner for a year (over 3 times the $11,726 it spends per child on education). And for decades, Nebraska’s jails and prisons have been at 150 percent of capacity, all paid by the taxpayers.
In 2016, the state legislature tried to address these problems by increasing spending on the prison system. But locking up more Leo Guthmillers for long, mandatory minimum sentences – when they pose little threat to public safety – has not worked.
As conservatives, we believe the core function of government is keeping the public safe from harm within the constraints of individual liberty and limited government. We also believe that every government program, including the justice system, must be held accountable for wise use of tax dollars, just as we hold criminals accountable for their actions.
It is in that spirit that many conservatives are questioning the application of long, mandatory sentences for low-level crimes. The case against mandatory minimums, at both the federal and state level, is straightforward. They empower prosecutors with unreviewable authority to bring charges against offenders that require long sentences, tying the hands of judges in the process. They require courts to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, regardless of the facts of the case. And they undermine basic expectations of fairness and individualized consideration in our justice system.
The trend across the country is to focus resources on fighting violent crime, reserving prisons for criminals who pose a real threat to the public. The first state to take this step a decade ago, Texas was able to close two prisons, save hundreds of millions of dollars, and bring crime rates down to levels not seen since the 1960s. Others, including Georgia, South Carolina, and Alaska have followed suit.
This week, the Nebraska legislature will consider scaling back mandatory minimums for some first-time, minor drug offenses. If enacted, LB447 will allow judges to craft sentences on a case-by-case basis versus the current approach using mandatory minimums. This legislation could save Nebraskan taxpayers millions of dollars, and begin to show an actual return on investment by increasing public safety.
Given the budget challenges facing Nebraska, mandating long sentences for nonviolent offenders is an undue burden on taxpayers. Cases like Leo Guthmiller’s are also an example of the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing. The state legislature can better balance the scales of “justice” while protecting Nebraska’s taxpayers. They will have the opportunity to do so when they consider LB447.
Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999 and is the founder of American Solutions. Pat Nolan was Republican leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988 and Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.