The Problem With Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Willie Simmons is 61 years old. He's spent the last 38 years in prison for stealing $9.00 thanks to what clearly appears to be an unjust and overly hard "habitual offender" statute. His story is far too common.

Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne, who has worked as a reporter and anchor at a number of television stations around the country, shared the story of a man currently being held in one of Alabama’s most notorious prison’s on Twitter this weekend, and it exposes the injustice created by so-called “habitual offender” or “three strikes” laws:

Let’s let the first part of Mr. Simmons’s story sink in for a second. Nearly 40 years ago, he was sentenced to what amounted to life in prison without parole for stealing $9.00. Not $9,000. Not $900. Not even $90. Nine freaking dollars. Granted, the underlying offense was one where he subdued a man and stole his wallet without knowing how much was in it. Still, it’s important to note that he wasn’t carrying a weapon when he committed that crime, nor did he use one in committing that crime. And yet he has spent the past 38 years in one of Alabama’s most notorious state prisons and faces the prospect of dying there unless someone steps in to change things.

Unfortunately for the 25-year-old Simmons back in 1979 this wasn’t his first brush with the law. Prior to this, and since turning 18 some seven years earlier, Simmons had been convicted of three other crimes, all of them apparently non-violent. As Sherburne recounts, one of those was an apparent Grand Larceny charge for which he served roughly a year in prison. It isn’t clear if this was also a non-violent crime or whether it involved the use of a weapon, but one presumes his sentence would have been longer had it been. The other two involved receiving stolen property, which is, of course, generally a non-violent crime. As Sherburne notes, Simmons does not deny his guilt for each of the offenses but he does say that the final offense came at a time when he was battling drug addiction and seeking money to get high, an all too common story. Since then, he has overcome his addiction and appears to have been a model prisoner during the time in prison.

Simmons has spent the last four decades in prison over what amounts to a petty robbery thanks to the fact that, back when he was convicted, Alabama had a habitual offender law on the books and that his final conviction was sufficient to land him in prison for effectively the rest of his life. This was in the era before the “three strikes” laws that became common starting in the 90s, but the concept is the same and these laws have been responsible for many stories similar to that of Mr. Simmons. In recent years this has led many jurisdictions to change their”three strikes” laws in an effort to prevent injustices such as this. I don’t know if that is true of Alabama or not, but even if it is, it’s too late to help Willie Simmons. His appeals dried up long ago and even at the age of 61, nearly four decades after he entered jail for the last time, he cannot apply for probation or parole. His only hope would be commutation of his sentence or a pardon from the Governor of Alabama.

I’m not suggesting that Simmons should not have faced a serious sentence upon his fourth conviction over what could not have been more than seven years. Clearly, at the time he committed this crime he was a man who was inclined to commit crimes, a problem exacerbated by his drug addiction. However, the sentence that he received 38 years ago clearly was unjust given the severity of the underlying offenses. Additionally, the fact that his final conviction, including sentencing, came after a trial that lasted only twenty-five minutes seems to be pretty clear evidence that he did not have adequate assistance of counsel. At the very least, his court-appointed counsel should have presented evidence at sentencing regarding his drug addiction as potential mitigation. That apparently didn’t happen.

All of this is a long way of saying that there seems to be no justice served by what happened to Simmons. Even with four convictions, it doesn’t appear that he was generally a serious threat to the community at the time of his last offense, and he likely would have benefited if his drug addiction was given more attention at the time. Life in prison, though, is not justice under these circumstances, it’s insane.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    Alabama has spent at least $1-2 million incarcerating him. But he’s black, so the taxpayers probably think it’s worth it.

    One of the stupidest things i ever heard was in Opelika, Alabama, in 2006. A local explained to me that we had to invade Iraq, because “if we don’t fight him over there, we’ll have to fight him over here.”

    I spent yesterday in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, but fortunately was able to avoid Alabama this time.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Teve:

    A local explained to me that we had to invade Iraq, because “if we don’t fight him over there, we’ll have to fight him over here.”

    Likely heard that from his father, who used that reasoning to justify Viet Nam.

    3 strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences are asinine and a waste of money. They only imprison minorities and the poor.

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  3. An Interested Party says:

    Let’s let the first part of Mr. Simmons’s story sink in for a second. Nearly 40 years ago, he was sentenced to what amounted to life in prison without parole for stealing $9.00.

    Meanwhile Steven Mnuchin swindled people out of millions of dollars and ends up being the Treasury Secretary…so much “justice” in this country…

    I spent yesterday in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, but fortunately was able to avoid Alabama this time.

    You must be a masochist…

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  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t really want to single anyone out, but I don’t much like the whole “that state is stupid/crazy/wild/whatever” stuff. Maybe it’s because I live in California and I get so much of it from people (on the internet mostly, of course) saying stupid things about California, which we’ve seen here lately.

    For instance, I’m spending this holiday in the state of Texas, visiting my daughter in Houston. There’s some things that are different, but not all that different, despite it being a “red” state. (as a strange side note, unlike in CA, there’s a reddish hue to many of the roads, because of the reddish hue of the gravel it’s made from. This is not the case in CA, where gravel is blue-gray. There’s your “red state” and “blue state”.)

    I’m pretty sure at least one of our hosts lives in AL, and I appreciate him and what he has to say. I think he probably likes AL.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    I don’t really want to single anyone out, but I don’t much like the whole “that state is stupid/crazy/wild/whatever” stuff.

    I wonder if this same scenario would have happened to Mr. Simmons if he had lived in, say, New York or Massachusetts or California…

  6. mattbernius says:

    @An Interested Party:
    This isn’t solely an Alabama thing… Or deep South. Mandatory Minimums are any issue in all states. These are particularly draconian, but three still laws were incredibly common.

    In fact, some of the best deterrence theory research about them was based on CA’s 3 strike laws circa 2012 (spoiler alert, they don’t work). See for ex:

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121015182421.htm

    This is a national issue.

    More coming when I have time for a longer reply.

  7. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    (spoiler alert, they don’t work)

    Who’d have guessed that?

  8. mattbernius says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker:
    Honestly, nobody pushing CJ reforms in the 80’s/90’s. This has been what Biden for gotten attacked for.

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    I have worked in 14 states plying my trade climbing telephone poles to earn a living. I have driven across many states to get to those jobs and have traveled to other states for vacation since I retired or with the parental units when I was a child. By my count there are about 13 states in New England and the Northwest that I have yet to visit.
    Large city to small town it didn’t seem to matter. From Clarence, Missouri to Houston, Texas. Anaheim, California to Tecumseh, Michigan they all sang the same song.
    Whenever I was working in Frogtown along State Route 16 for instance the folks there would all brag about what a fine town it was, that everyone was honest and faithful to their wives and their kids were the smartest in the county. When I was leaving to go work in Gooberville, the next town down the road, I was warned to be careful as everyone there would cheat you out of a nickle if they could and all the High School Cheerleaders were whores.
    Of course when I got to Gooberville and told them where I had just come from they always asked me how I could stand working there since everyone in Frogtown was a liar, they all married their sisters and all the children all had square heads. Gooberville was the place to be because the kids were all strong and clear eyed and they beat Frogtown in the High School football game every year.

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  10. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mister Bluster:..all the children all had square heads…

    Note to self. Next post read it 20 times instead of only 15 and you might just catch errors like that.

  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Truer words…

    Except for Louisiana, I’ve traveled for biz or pleasure to each of the lower 48 and lived in several of them. There is always the our state, our town boosterism and the need to tear down the neighbor. Even when the speaker ended up in a community due to a career move and he/she will likely be gone in a couple of years.

  12. Gustopher says:

    Let’s let the first part of Mr. Simmons’s story sink in for a second. Nearly 40 years ago, he was sentenced to what amounted to life in prison without parole for stealing $9.00. Not $9,000. Not $900. Not even $90. Nine freaking dollars. Granted, the underlying offense was one where he subdued a man and stole his wallet without knowing how much was in it. Still, it’s important to note that he wasn’t carrying a weapon when he committed that crime, nor did he use one in committing that crime.

    So, assault and robbery?

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be merciful, but he went from repeated non-violent crimes, and escalated to violent crimes. At 25, he had not learned any lessons from his first three encounters with the law, and had attacked someone.

    I don’t think he was going to learn his lesson then either. The $9 is irrelevant.

    Life in prison is offensively harsh, and it’s pretty clear that the state didn’t do a decent job of getting him on a better path before that crime, but at the moment he was 25 and being sentenced, I’d want him off the streets until he was out of his 20s.

    Ideally, though, his first conviction would have ended with a lengthy probation period, with an assigned social-worker, as well as job placement, drug rehab if he’s testing positive, etc., so his life wouldn’t have been wasted.

    So much has gone wrong with the process before it got to that point that I have a problem saying that it was the mandatory minimums that were the problem. The fact that the only option was a bunch of jail time with no effort at rehabilitation is a bigger problem.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @Sleeping Dog:..There is always the our state, our town boosterism and the need to tear down the neighbor.

    It wasn’t all bad. The first job I had in Texas was to work storm damage after hurricane Alicia ripped up Houston in 1983. After awhile I found work in McKinney just north of Dallas. On my Sundays off I would drive around the Texas Farm to Market roads and look at the cattle. One time I picked up a hippie looking hitchhiker who was likely a little younger than me but not by much. He wasn’t going far so our conversation was brief. I’m sure he saw the Illinois plates on the front of my truck since as he got out he pulled a small bag of weed out of his jacket pocket, flipped it onto the seat and said “Welcome to Texas”.
    It was some good reefer!

  14. Hal_10000 says:

    @mattbernius:

    This isn’t solely an Alabama thing… Or deep South. Mandatory Minimums are any issue in all states. These are particularly draconian, but three still laws were incredibly common.

    This.

    The problem with our legal system is it can’t find a balance between not punishing people enough and punishing people too much. In McArdle’s book, she talks about a parole program in Hawaii that’s been really successful. Most programs overlook small violations until they finally throw the guy back in jail. But as she points out, this is basically like bad parenting (which MANY criminals have had). In order for punishment to work, it consistent and it must be proportional. If you let your kid get away with everything but then beat the crap out of him every now and then for some minor offense, they don’t learn about consequences. They learn that punishment is arbitrary. The Hawaii program turns this on its head. Every parole violation is punished. But with a weekend in jail usually. And they are punished less if they fess up to doing drugs or whatever. It’s giving them the parenting they never had: punished for wrong-doing, but punished immediately, consistently and justly.

    That is a microcosm of our system. Let people get away with a slap on the wrists. Then suddenly throw into prison for decades. And we do nothing to make them better people in there. In fact, these days, we pay them slave wages for hard work and then charge them to read books or talk to their families.

    We need to find a better way. Had Simmons gotten appropriate punishment for his early crimes and then a proportional punishment for his third, he might have gotten out in his 30’s and spent the last 30 years being a productive member of society.

  15. Kurtz says:

    There are too many laws, period.

    Beyond that, a more economically equitable society would likely cut down on quite a bit of crime. It would also brighten the line between persons who are dangerous independent of their immediate circumstances and those who can be helped.

  16. Kit says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The problem with our legal system is it can’t find a balance between not punishing people enough and punishing people too much

    I suspect that one problem involves our creating rather perverse incentives. If I show leniency and it results in some crime being plastered across tv’s, then it’s likely my neck. Better to play it safe. There will be a cost, of course, but I will not be the one paying it.

    I see this as a bit like the TSA: you might think that they are trying to find a balance between your safety and your inconvenience, but for those making the regulations, it is rather a balance between your safety and their job security.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Kit: This is why politicians are often enticed to be “hard on crime.” The guy who was let out “early” who then commits another crime? You can be sure that such an instance will be gleefully hung around his neck by the political opposition. Someone who is kept in prison “just in case” and “in order to get him off the streets”? Well, if he didn’t want to be in prison he shouldn’t have done the crime, right? The politician is just protecting people.

    What I’d like to know is exactly how many people in the slammer could be helped by training, treatment, and a path to employment vs. how many people really are psychopaths and need to be tucked away from society because they ARE a danger. Plus there’s the high percentage of people in prison who are mentally ill….

  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Of course a parole system like Hawaii’s would cost a lot of tax dollars and wouldn’t provide the opportunity for politicians to brag about being tough on crime. While it’s true that an effective parole system would be cheaper than imprisonment, the transition cost would be higher and we as a nation have trouble looking beyond the short term.

    Then you can take it one step further and address childhood nutrition and schooling for populations that are at risk of finding themselves involved in the criminal justice system. Again short term cost vs. long term benefit.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    A local explained to me that we had to invade Iraq, because “if we don’t fight him over there, we’ll have to fight him over here.”

    Likely heard that from his father, who used that reasoning to justify Viet Nam

    Since hearing that argument in the sixties I’ve had a mental image of a thousand sampans slowly skulling their way across the Pacific to invade California.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000: Now I’m curious about the Hawaii program, but I don’t think I’m curious enough to read a whole book by McCardle.

    My impression is that western Europe has way fewer people in prison for much shorter times than we do, and I’m unaware that France and Sweden are overrun with crime. We talk about rehabilitation, but all we seem to do is punish and warehouse. At least for poor, minority offenders.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @mattbernius: Here’s where cynicism comes into play. My take is that the people who enacted mandatory sentencing knew exactly who it was going to affect and used “it’ll reduce crime” as a cover. It’s the same basic argument as “there is a zero recidivism rate among murderers who’ve been executed.” It’s a feature that has become a bug because attitudes in the public are shifting.

  22. a country lawyer says:

    When I began my practice in the ’70’s we had a Federal Judge who would sometimes sentence a defendant to a term of imprisonment, and the shortly after the defendant had been processed into prison he would, on his motion bring the prisoner back and reduce the sentence to a period of probation. He would say probation doesn’t mean as much to someone who hasn’t heard the prison door slam behind him. I think he was right.

    Unfortunately that process can no longer be done. When the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were changed in the 80’s the power to reduce a sentence on the court’s own motion or that of the defendant was taken away and given to the government’s attorney alone.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: “All the X all had” is not particularly uncommon as an oral language thing in a lot of regions, so don’t beat yourself up. My favorite phrase from Southwest Washington is “the car needs fixed.” As far as we can tell, the phrase seems to have evolved from some European languages (the theory regionally is Finnish) that doesn’t have “-ing” verb forms or their equivalent.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: That’s the beauty of academic writing. You don’t need to read the whole book, you can read the chapters about Hawaii and fill in background as you need it from the rest of the text.

    The downside is that such books are hard to find in places where you can read the chapter you want to see for free. Maybe Hal would direct you to a library from which you could check out an e-book.

  25. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Let’s be clear and not over think this. This gentleman’s fate had nothing to do with the crime and punishment. Find me a white man in Alabama that’s a similar case. I dare anyone to. There are none. Why? Because the people of Alabama in that time…and to a lesser degree today…would overlook no opportunity to wield unmerciful power over a black man. Period. It doesn’t matter the occasion….those n!&&3rs will be made to have respect.

    This is how you enforce and maintain a caste system. Once you’ve destabilized the economic and educational prospects of the men…you’ve by default gotten the majority of the families that depend on them. Sure, they’ll be a few superstars kids or families that succeed in spite of…but majority will be hamstrung and relegated to just getting by. People that are just getting by don’t have a large interest in challenging the status quo or demanding a better future for their children. This was all part of a purposeful strategy to blunt the momentum of civil right movement and kill future iterations of it.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    This gentleman’s fate had nothing to do with the crime and punishment. Find me a white man in Alabama that’s a similar case. I dare anyone to. There are none. Why? Because the people of Alabama in that time…and to a lesser degree today…would overlook no opportunity to wield unmerciful power over a black man. Period. It doesn’t matter the occasion….those n!&&3rs will be made to have respect.

    Hence why I wondered if he would have suffered a similar fate if he had been in another state, particularly one outside of the South…

  27. mattbernius says:

    I am way to late getting back to this one due to holiday stuff. So let me begin with the most important stuff before I get salty. If you have some extra funds this year, please consider donating to an organization like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM – https://famm.org/) – https://secure2.convio.net/famm/site/Donation2?1675.donation=form1&df_id=1675&mfc_pref=T – who are doing really important work to overturn these types of laws.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    My take is that the people who enacted mandatory sentencing knew exactly who it was going to affect and used “it’ll reduce crime” as a cover.

    FWIW, I’ve talked to a number of these people — for example, the current head of FAMM was one of them. They (generally speaking) didn’t. Hell, it’s worth pointing out that many people within the African American community across states supported these types of laws at the height of the Crack epidemic as a hope of “saving their communities.” This gets to the fact that research in these sorts of areas is woefully underfunded and the data is absolute shit (btw, if you care about that my organization, Measures For Justice, in a nonpartisan group working specifically on improving all data transparency – https://measuresforjustice.org/give/ – please consider us at the end of the year as well).

    @An Interested Party:

    Hence why I wondered if he would have suffered a similar fate if he had been in another state, particularly one outside of the South…

    And that’s a liberal trap. After all, where was Stop and Frisk the law of the land for years? The well known southern city of New York. Likewise, well known conservative southern haven Portland Oregon remains on of the whitest cities in American due to a long history of redlining and other anti-African American ordinances. This isn’t a *Southern problem*. It’s a US-wide problem.

    @Jim Brown 32:

    This gentleman’s fate had nothing to do with the crime and punishment. Find me a white man in Alabama that’s a similar case.

    I don’t have a case to pull for AL, but trust me, they are there. There’s no question that this disproportionately affects African Americans, but it isn’t limited to them. And while it’s hard to disentangle notions of criminality from ethnicity in the US, the story is more complex than simply racism or “the South.”

    @Hal_10000:

    The problem with our legal system is it can’t find a balance between not punishing people enough and punishing people too much.

    Beyond that, the problem is that we don’t have “a legal system.” We have, at a minimum, 51 legals systems (one for each state and then the Federal Gov). And generally speaking the Supreme Court, to @a country lawyer’s point, provides a LOT of deference to States.

    Ok, beyond that, prison has theoretically 3 functions: (1) punish, (2) rehabilitate, (3) protect public safety. Laws like this are morally abhorrent because they provide no possibility of 2 and undercut 3. If someone is rehabilitated, there is no public safety risk. But this law provides no possibility for 2.

    We, as Americans, are addicted to (1), which you hear echos of in @Gustopher’s comment (and Gus tends to be one of our most understanding commenters).

    This is also why prisons are bankrupting states like AL: https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/tns-alabama-prison-budget-increase.html

  28. de stijl says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    I’ve lived in Frogtown briefly.

    It’s an actual named neighborhood in St. Paul.

    There’s also Swede’s Hollow.

    Pig’s Eye.