Friday, 2 November 2012

Mandatory Minimums, The West Wing, & US Political Stasis

Nation-20121112The other day, I was reading an article in that week’s issue of The Nation, and I was reminded of an old West Wing episode. The article in question was Judge Mark W. Bennett’s “Imposing Justice” (it has a different title online). What amazed me was how little the national discussion on drugs has changed since the episode of The West Wing – “Mandatory Minimums” (Season 1, Ep.20) – first aired, on May 3rd 1999.

“Never could I have imagined that by the end of my 50s, after nineteen years as one of 678 federal district court judges in the nation, I would have sent 1,092 of my fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release. The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts. Methamphetamine is their drug of choice. Crack cocaine is a distant second. Drug kingpins? Oh yes, I’ve sentenced them, too. But I can count them on one hand… I am greatly conflicted about my role in the ‘war on drugs.’”

Judge Bennett then gets into the details of his experiences in sentencing people for drug-related crimes:

“Crack defendants are almost always poor African-Americans. Meth defendants are generally lower-income whites. More than 80 percent of the 4,546 meth defendants sentenced in federal courts in 2010 received a mandatory minimum sentence. These small-time addicts are apprehended not through high-tech wiretaps or sophisticated undercover stings but by common traffic stops for things like nonfunctioning taillights.”

Incidentally, the “traffic stops for things like nonfunctioning taillights” happens in another episode of The West Wing – “Bartlett for America” (Season 3, Ep.10) – but in that instance it’s how they catch an arsonist planning on burning a black church in Tennessee…


The West Wing Cast

This brings us to the following scene from West Wing’s “Mandatory Minimums”:


Sam and Toby are crossing a street.

SAM – Mandatory Minimums are racist.

TOBY – I understand that.

SAM – They’re a red herring.

TOBY – I understand that, too.

SAM – It’s a way of looking like you’re tough on crime, without assuming the burden of being tough on crime.

TOBY – Everything you’ve said I understand.

SAM – I’m saying…

TOBY – We do things one thing at a time.

SAM – But I’m saying we don’t have time to do things one thing at a time.

TOBY – We’re talking about treatment.

SAM – I’m talking about treatment and I’m talking about Mandatory Minimums and I’m saying it’s a red herring and I'm saying it’s racist.

And again, later in the episode:



Congresswoman ANDREA WYATT is sitting on a picnic blanket. Toby is standing nearby… She gets up and picks up her blanket. Toby and Andy start to walk by the Tidal Basin.

TOBY – What about drugs?

ANDY – That’s a different story.

TOBY – Andy…

ANDY – Mandatory Minimums are racist.

TOBY – One step at a time.

ANDY – It’s part of the same step.

TOBY – Treatment.

ANDY – I’m saying Mandatory Minimums...

They each try to talk over one another.

TOBY – I know what you’re saying. I don’t want to talk about Mandatory Minimums.

ANDY – The Sentencing Commissioners…

TOBY – Andy, I don’t want to…

ANDY – …. proposals regarding cocaine recommend that relative federal mandatory minimums sentencing crack users…

TOBY – This is what happens. This is what you do. I say I don’t want to talk about Mandatory Minimums and we talk about Mandatory Minimums anyway. You hijack my ability to make that decision for myself, Andrea. And making decisions for myself is my birthright!

ANDY - Good to get that off you chest there, Pokey?

[Ok, to those last few snippets of dialogue were included just because I like the scene…]

The point is made more succinctly later in the episode, in a scene between Toby and the President:

TOBY – Mandatory Minimums are considerably higher for crack than for powder cocaine.


TOBY – The vast majority of crack users are black. The vast majority of drug users are white. The Mandatory Minimums are racist.

BARTLET – Yes, they are

There are so many problems with Mandatory Minimums, and while Judge Bennett makes a lot of good points, I thought there was one that was made in West Wing that didn’t feature in the article, but I thought deserved a mention:

BARTLET – I get nervous around laws that fundamentally assume that Americans can’t be trusted. We’d better have mandatory sentencing, because judges can’t be trusted to disperse even-handed justice.

The most depressing comment from the article, however, lies in the following snippet:

“If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.” [Emphasis mine]

Mandatory minimums remain an issue in American politics. How is it, again, that a part of pop culture (over a decade old) makes a better case for addressing the issue than many (if not all) current members of the US government? Just as I’ve found many thriller authors (conservative and democrat, in the higher quality echelons) do a better job of articulating the two sides of any political issue, The West Wing remains a solid, valuable and valid commentary on modern-day American politics. If you want more evidence of this, check out this article from The Atlantic“Democracy in America? Watching The West Wing With Egyptians in Cairo.

This political stasis is evident in so many issues, actually, and so many episodes of the West Wing are relevant to today’s political discussion – adjusted for specifics, dates and statistics, of course. The “Mandatory Minimums” episode is just one of many, and this relevance is just one of the many reasons I keep coming back to the series. Indeed, I’m re-watching the show now, for what must be the eighth or ninth time…

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