Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: What is it and is it just?

By Maya King

WANT Original Content

In 2010, Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Florida was arrested for aggravated assault of her abusive husband, Rico Gray. Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall of their home when he attacked her. Subsequently, she was sentenced the mandatory minimum of 20 years and could have spent 60 years in prison. She had just given birth a week before and was trained and licensed to have a concealed weapon. Early this January, Alexander was released. The less obvious culprit here are mandatory minimum sentences.

For some crimes, in this case, those involving firearms, if the defendant is found guilty, they must be incarcerated for at least a certain number of years. No matter the intents or circumstances. There are mandatory minimum sentences for illegal drug possession as well. Mandatory minimums are often cited as a cause for unnecessary imprisonment of people who commit nonviolent drug violations. For those crimes, African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned when compared to the overall population. In fact, those disparities are present in crime as a whole. In Marissa Alexander’s case, the jury decided against her. That twelve minute discussion meant she would have to serve at least a mandatory 20 years in prison, a disproportionate sentence that the jury might not have even known about.

Two major laws factored into Alexander’s sentence: “stand your ground” and the mandatory minimum sentences due to the involvement and firing of a gun. In short, in states with stand your ground laws, including Florida, a person doesn’t have to retreat without using deadly force. Thus, the “duty to retreat” does not apply and you don’t have to safely flee when threatened. I found this confusing, so I came up with a few examples of where the law would be applicable:

  • If an intruder breaks into your home, you may shoot to kill to protect your possessions and property.
  • Instead of fleeing your office building during an armed robbery, you may use a firearm you’re legally carrying.
  • When your life is threatened within your home, you may legally use a concealed lethal weapon instead of fleeing.

Does that last scenario sound familiar? That was the exact situation Marissa Alexander found herself when her husband attacked her. The mandatory minimum laws dictated that she must serve 10 years because a firearm was involved and another 10 years because she fired the gun. Although a gun’s involvement and firing are dangerous elements in a situation, the mandatory minimums don’t take into account any thing else that lessen the severity of the incident. For example, nobody was injured by the shot Alexander fired. However, the court was not convinced that Alexander feared for her life, so Stand Your Ground, also known as self-defense immunity, did not apply. By this sentence, the decision was that the mother should have fled her home, leaving her violent husband with her children, who were in the house as well.

By pleading guilty to the charges, Alexander avoided the massive sentence and was released. However, her story isn’t a complete justice success story. Now, she has to serve two years under house arrest, paying the expenses herself. And, lest we forget, she should never have spent any of those years away from her children in prison.

Following her initial arrest, Free Marissa Now was ignited online. Now, even after her release and house arrest, the campaign still offers its visitors ways to donate to Alexander’s legal defense, write to her, and encourages those enraged by unjust mandatory minimum sentences to spread the word.

In summary, Marissa Alexander was unjustly sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison because she used a firearm for self defense against her husband and the court didn’t believe that she felt her life was in danger. If mandatory minimums were abolished, criminals could be appropriately convicted while maintaining justice in the justice system.

Image source: Daniel Arauz

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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