Today on the Howell & Yarbrough show, a frenzied discussion broke over this New York Times op-ed musing on why the death of Zaevion Dobson hadn’t sparked more gun control legislation. Numerous points came up from the callers, all with interesting and varied viewpoints. Regardless of my personal position on gun control, I enjoyed hearing all of the perspectives until a caller named “Dr. Joe” posed the following suggestion. If you’re caught with a gun in the commission of a crime, you automatically get a mandatory thirty year sentence with no parole or hope for early release. It was a bad call with terrible legal consequences, and I’m going to outline in detail just why.
From a linguistic perspective, before we begin a constructive analysis of the proposal by “Dr. Joe,” I want all of you to see a framework present in the Paper of Record’s op-ed. A tragedy strikes, usually one involving a gun. The public experiences initial sadness and then outrage. Eventually, someone will take the tragedy if it involves gun violence and ask why more isn’t done to regulate guns in America. Most tellingly, there’s usually no solutions presented absent an outright removal and ban of all guns in the United States.
Now the issue with the mandatory minimum of thirty years for possession of a gun during commission of a crime. First, there’s already a law in place for that in most states, and even at the Federal level. Changing the law to mandate a thirty year sentence takes the existing legal framework and places it in the realm of absurdity.
As an example, under “Dr. Joe’s” hypothetical, if an unloaded gun were in the car of a party allegedly robbing a convenience store, and that person were caught, a conviction would result in thirty years, without parole. The gun may have been in the car for perfectly legal reasons. Maybe the alleged perpetrator just bought the gun from a local firearms dealer before going down the rabbit hole of committing a criminal offense and knocking over a convenience store. Since there’s evidence out there prosecutors start by charging with the most serious offense, and negotiate down from there, a thirty year sentence sounds fantastic to the layperson and those DAs seeking reelection on a “tough on crime” platform. In reality, all this does is create more problems for the judiciary and overcrowd overflowing prisons.
A mandatory thirty year sentence if convicted ties the judiciary’s hands when sentencing rolls around. We’ve seen how this plays out with crack cocaine, and the “ten times stronger, therefore ten times the penalty” response when mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines forced jurists’ hands to sentence a person with rock cocaine to ten years when a person with the powder variety would get one. It took decades to reverse this and inject sense into the now “Advisory” guidelines through education and continued pushing from the bar that now those who are charged with the possession or sale of crack don’t get an added “bump” to their sentence because of a misperception in the public’s eye over how the drug works.
And the added requirement of thirty years without parole will take an already crowded jail population and just make that situation even worse. Prisons are struggling to find beds for those copping pleas or found guilty in court. The prison industry is so large it’s currently facing a highly disparate prisoner to bed ratio. If you don’t allow for early release conditions then you’re contributing to the problem.
Another factor largely ignored by those who are seeking a “tough on crime” solution like the one Dr. Joe posed is the propensity of police to arrest first and ask questions later. We’ve done a great job ignoring those who “get the ride” by passing them off as filthy dirty criminals. Attitudes change drastically when you’re the person in front of the judge. If “Dr. Joe” found himself in a spot where he got arrested over a dime bag of pot and had a sentence enhancement for merely having a newly purchased gun in his car at the time of the setup, I’d wager his tune would change quickly.
Gun violence is a problem in our country. There’s no easy solution to this, and co opting the death of a teen who sacrificed his life for another doesn’t need to be used as a taking point to further one’s political agenda. Here it happened, though, and it’s worth noting and calling to attention this saddening event before other deaths are co opted for political gain.