John A. Steakely

Attorney John Steakley is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. He began his career as the Special Prosecutor for Drug Crimes for a multi-county, multi-agency drug task force in Tennessee, where he represented the State of Tennessee in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases in a 5-county judicial district.

Mandatory Sentences Face Growing Skepticism

Mandatory Sentences Face Growing Skepticism

Two decades ago when the current "tough on crime" wave was really getting going, people believed that tougher sentences would send a powerful message and result in FEWER people ending up in jail. These tough sentences would apply to non-violent crime as well, the theory being that the non-violent drug users will graduate up to being violent drug dealers and we save lives and money by locking them up before that happens.  It SOUNDS catchy, but that's just not how life works

“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”

Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.

“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”

If tough sentences stopped people from committing crime, then there would be no murders.  But people who commit crime are often 16-30 years old, lacking in maturity, lacking in judgment, and completely convinced they can get away with anything they try, so punishment is irrelevant to them. 

Longer sentences prevent or reduce REPEAT offenses by those same people, but not by others.  And most drug users do NOT graduate up to being drug dealers, robbers, or burglars.  Some do.  Most don't. 

So perhaps this new wave of "alternative sentencing" that seems to have hit Georgia and other states will make a difference.  These are big social policies that often take years or decades to show results, so let's not expect a miracle by Monday.


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