Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Solution Isn't Kindler, Gentler Prison

Laura Flanders

 by The Laura Flanders Show

What got a person locked up – no matter what - in 1790? Piracy. Period. At the birth of the republic mandatory minimum sentences were a rare and targeted thing. Attacking and robbing ships at sea got you life, no ifs, ands or buts.

What gets you a mandatory minimum sentence today? Any one of 261 different crimes.

Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa took a look, for her book, The First Civil Right, How Liberals Built Prison America. There she chronicles how for the first two hundred years, Americans managed to get by with only a handful of mandatory minimum laws.

Those governed specific federal crimes. Refusing to testify before Congress would get you a month, bribing a federal inspector six months, forging a US seal got you a year.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that Congress started passing mandatory minimums left and right, and we do mean Left and Right. Two terms of tough-on-crime Reagan and Bush Republicans added 72 new mandatory minimum statutes; Clinton’s two terms added 116.

Quoting Joe Biden in 1994, Murakawa reminds us of the liberal Democrats’ approach:

“The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties… 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic party is for 124,000 new state prison cells.”

This is the period, let’s remember, that saw black-white racial ratios among the imprisoned go from three to one to eight to one. Minimums passed during those years include a mandatory 15 year term for carrying a firearm on a third offence, and a five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack cocaine.

The number of mandatory minimum crimes tripled between 1985 and 2000, engorging the prison system, and locking up especially women, mostly women with kids. In Murakawa’s book, the list of mandatory minimum statutes on the books today runs to 20 pages.

“The perils of post-war liberal law and order are worth recalling now,” she says, when demands for reform are loud but modest in scope. It’s not rocket science why the US has the world’s biggest prison population by far. It’s our policy of imprisoning so many people. The solution’s not kindler, gentler incarceration, or better oversight, it’s an entirely different approach.

You can watch my interview with Naomi Murakawa, on the pro-civil rights roots of the US prison state, this week on The Laura Flanders Show on KCET/LINKtv and TeleSUR and find all my interviews and reports at  LauraFlanders.com. To tell me what you think, write to Laura@LauraFlanders.com.


© 2019 Laura Flanders
Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including "Bushwomen: How They Won the White House for Their Man" (2005).  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media, and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'This Is Not Over': Alaska Supreme Court Rejects Youth Climate Case

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

Jessica Corbett ·


Analysis Finds 'Staggering' Rise in Voter Suppression After GOP Restrictions in Georgia

"This is why we are fighting this new law in court," said one voting rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Egregious': Pennsylvania Court Strikes Down Mail-In Voting Law

The ruling was stayed pending an appeal to the state's Supreme Court and as one voting advocate put it: "The fight's not over yet, folks."

Julia Conley ·


Big Win for Open Internet as Court Upholds California Net Neutrality Law

One legal advocate called the Ninth Circuit's opinion "a great decision and a major victory for internet users in California and nationwide."

Kenny Stancil ·


Poll Shows Majority in US Want Diplomacy, Not War With Russia Over Ukraine

The survey's findings echo the pleas of progressive lawmakers, who assert "there is no military solution" to the crisis involving the world's two foremost nuclear powers.

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo