John Oliver Skewers Mandatory Minimums

Comedian and social commentator John Oliver used Sunday's edition of Last Week Tonight to brilliantly skewer the mandatory minimum sentencing schemes that send people to prison for decades or even life for non-violent drug offenses.

"Mandatory minimums require judges to punish certain crimes with a minimum number of years in prison regardless of context, which is a little strange, because context is important," Oliver said. "For instance, shouting the phrase 'I'm coming!' is fine when catching a bus, but not okay when you're already on the bus."

Driven by "tough on crime" policies in general and tougher drug sentencing laws in particular, the US prison populated has more than quadrupled since the inauguration of the Reagan-era war on drugs in the early 1980s.

Mandatory minimum sentences are "partially responsible for the explosion of our prison population," Oliver pointed out. "We have 2 million people incarcerated. If we keep going this direction, we'll soon have enough to populate an entire new country with prisoners."

Mandatory minimums have been popular at both the state and federal levels, but in recent years, the states have led the retreat from the carceral excesses of the drug war. It is the federal prison where mandatory minimums still hold the most sway, and it is the federal prison system that still has half of prisoners doing time for drug offenses.

Mandatory minimums are not only ineffective and expensive, they also "have had a real human cost," Oliver said, citing the case of Weldon Angelos, a Salt Lake City man sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for selling marijuana with a gun in his boot on three separate occasions. The sentence was so blatantly unjust that even his sentencing judge has denounced it.

"I do think about Angelos," Paul Cassell, the retired Utah judge who tried Angelos's case, told ABC News. "I sometimes drive on the interstate by the prison where he's held, and I think, 'That wasn't the right thing to do, and the system forced me to do it.'"

"He won't get out until he's 79," Oliver commented, "for selling something that's currently legal for recreational use in four states, and whose main side effect is making episodes of Frasier slightly funnier."

Here's the video:


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