During the Eighties and Nineties, the U.S. government introduced mandatory minimums, which require judges to punish particular crimes with minimum prison sentences regardless of context. John Oliver outlines the shocking facts in his latest Last Week Tonight report.
The host cites The Washington Post, which reports that "since 1980, the number of inmates behind bars has more than quadrupled." This equals roughly 2 million people, or one out of every 100 adults. Oliver argues that too many low-level drug dealers are serving outrageous sentences designed "when America was in the grips of a full-fledged anti-drug hysteria."
One prisoner, Kevin Ott, is serving life without parole for trafficking three ounces of meth. "That is insane," Oliver says. "They're treating him like he's Season Five Walter White when he's barely Episode One Jesse Pinkman." Meanwhile, first-time-offending pot dealer Weldon Angelos was sentenced to 55 years: "If my math is right here, this low-level pot dealer received the exact same sentence as would an airplane-hijacking, child-raping terrorist – a person so evil I legitimately don't know if one has ever existed."
These sentences were introduced as scare tactics, most notably during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. But even many government officials say the punishments don't fit the crimes. "Prison sentences are a lot like penises," Oliver jokes. "If they're used correctly, even a short one can do the trick."
Some reforms for mandatory minimums have been made both on federal and state level, but they haven't been issued retroactively – many prisoners are still serving time on charges that would have been far less severe today.
"Almost everyone has agreed that mandatory minimum laws were a mistake," Oliver says. "And we cannot have a system where people are continuing to pay for that mistake – and where perhaps their best chance of getting out of a prison that they should no longer be in is somehow finding a turkey costume and hanging around the fucking White House at Thanksgiving."