minimum sentencing laws

Political prisoner Leonard Peltier once wrote, “When you grow up Indian, you don’t have to become a criminal, you already are a criminal.” Through the drug trade, U.S. government has effectively marketed the policing and imprisonment of minorities as the key to public safety, and therefore marked them as targets of state terror. This unearths how Native men can be incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, how Native women can be incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. It demonstrates how the flooding of crack cocaine into Black communities during the ’70s correlated with a sharp increase in minimum sentencing laws that helped put 1.7 million Black people under some form of correctional control. It reveals how native Hawaiians, who represent just 20 percent of the state’s population, can comprise 40 percent of the its incarcerated. […] Indeed, of minorities and the poor it fashions enemies of the state with the intent to exercise terror. From the origins of police, to the school-to-prison-pipeline, to the vast network of U.S. incarceration, this has been the enduring legacy of the American judicial system — not safety, and certainly not justice.

Laurel Highlands is a penitentiary for men, located 70 miles SE of Pittsburgh. It is the only prison in the state of Pennsylvania that is specifically for inmates who are elderly or infirm. Inmates within the Pennsylvania corrections system are sent to Laurel Highlands when they have been diagnosed with a condition that requires daily medical support, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, kidney or liver disease, or pulmonary diseases. The facility operates mostly as a medical hospital, and the staff consists of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nursing assistants. Security staffing is minimal. The hospice unit is also staffed by a prisoner helper system, where other prison inmates assist the nursing staff by providing personal care such as cleaning, helping a sick inmate move from place to place, and providing company to the dying inmate. There are no bars on the windows, and security fencing is similar to those at a minimum security prison. Showers are outfitted with grab bars and shower seats. Due to the four decade long “war on drugs”, mandatory minimum sentencing and three strikes laws, the percentage of elderly inmates in prison has exploded, leaving the country’s correctional systems in the position of having to provide geriatric care, which costs approximately 30% more than the cost of housing a relatively healthy inmate. There are roughly 300 inmates at Laurel Highlands, with a very long waiting list.


Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is a prison for women, located in Wilsonville Oregon. It is the only women’s prison in the state of Oregon, after the closure of the Oregon Women’s Correctional Center in Salem. Due to the passage of Ballot Measure 11 in 1994, otherwise known as the mandatory minimum sentence law, the population of female inmates in Oregon quickly overwhelmed the 200 bed facility at OWCC, leading to the construction of Coffee Creek. The facility houses inmates in minimum, medium, and maximum security, and is designated as the housing unit for female death row inmates. Coffee Creek offers several job training programs including computer programming and Excel, and training programs in recycling plants on campus. The Oregon Department of Corrections also operates the Parenting Inside Out program which offers classes in parenting skills to mothers behind bars.
In December of 2014, six musicians from the Oregon Symphony performed a special concert for the inmates at Coffee Creek. The group performed such favorites as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Santa Baby”, as well as songs from “A Charlie Brown Christmas. The concert had a profound impact on all who attended, inmates and orchestra members alike.



Imprisoning a staggering number of our people is wrong. The way our nation does it is even worse. We must end mass incarceration, now.

If I’m walking down the street with a Black or Latino friend, my friend is way more likely to be stopped by the police, questioned, and even arrested. Even if we’re doing the exact same thing—he or she is more likely to be convicted and sent to jail.

Unless we recognize the racism and abuse of our criminal justice system and tackle the dehumanizing stereotypes that underlie it, our nation – and our economy – will never be as strong as it could be.

Please take a moment to watch the accompanying video, and please share it so others can understand what’s at stake for so many Americans.

Here are the facts:

Today, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of its prisoners, and we spend more than $80 billion each year on prisons.

The major culprit is the so-called War on Drugs. There were fewer than 200,000 Americans behind bars as recently as the mid-70’s. Then, a racially-tinged drug hysteria swept our nation, and we saw a wave of increasingly militant policing that targeted communities of color and poorer neighborhoods.

With “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes out” laws, the number of Americans behind bars soon ballooned to nearly 2.5 million today, despite widespread evidence that locking people up doesn’t make us safer.

Unconscious bias and cultural stereotypes lead to discriminatory enforcement of the laws – from who gets pulled over to where police conduct drug sweeps.

Even though Blacks, whites, and Latinos use drugs at similar rates, people with black and brown skin are more likely to be pulled over, searched, arrested, charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jails and prisons where they can be subject to some of the worst human rights abuses.

As a result, black people incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites, and Latinos incarcerated at a rate double that of white Americans.

Even if you’ve “served your time,” you never escape the label.

A felony conviction can bar you from getting a student loan, putting a roof over your head, or even from voting. It might even disqualify you from getting a job which can make it impossible for people with felony convictions to pull themselves out of poverty. And many who end up in prison were living in chronic poverty to begin with.

All of this means a lot of potential human talent is going to waste. We’re spending a fortune locking people up who could fuel our economy and build strong communities, in some cases just to increase the profits of private prison corporations.

So what do we do?

First, enact smarter sentencing laws that end mandatory minimums and transform the way we treat people who enter the criminal justice system. Instead of prisons and jails, we need well-paying jobs, and to invest in proven and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, like job training and mental health and drug treatment programs.

Second, stop the militarized policing and end discriminatory policing practices such as “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” that disproportionately target communities of color.

Third, stop building new jails, start closing some existing ones, and begin to invest in schools, public transit, and housing assistance or local jobs programs. States are spending more and more on prisons, while cutting funding for schools. That’s crazy.

Finally, “ban the box” – the box on job applications that asks whether you have ever been convicted of a felony on a job application. Already, dozens of states cities, and counties have passed bills requiring that employers consider what you can do in the future, not what you might have done in the past.

Instead of locking people up unjustly, and then locking them out of the economy for the rest of their lives, we need to stop wasting human talent and start opening doors of opportunity – to everyone.

A Competent Town Guard

External image

While this certainly isn’t true in all cases, I get this sinking feeling that villagers and the town guard can’t hack it in their daily lives. It’s as almost some of these places merely exist to get saved by dashing level 3 heroes. I don’t like it. I am a civil servant, and I lament the fact that heroes are constantly bailing out befuddled town guards.

I admit, if system worked, we wouldn’t have much of a story. When the town guard is properly equipped with magical crossbows (the D&D equivalent of MP5s), there is no reason to keep around unstable, fickle heroes. Imagine the kind of campaign that occurs when the local evil necromancer is apprehended by the town guard, and, due to minimum sentencing laws, spends the next 57 years animating corpses for local PSAs. 

The heroes, murder hobos as they are, would have nothing to do. The world is a happier, healthier place but the campaign is over before it started. There is no story to tell when the system works.

In reality, towns have a plan
The standard fantasy setting includes a ridiculous number of things that want to kill you and animate your corpse. Any borderland town will plan for local threats. Sure most of the town population probably can’t write, but they aren’t stupid: they realized that building their homes near a place called the “Tombwood” required some additional planning. 

Quick aside: back in the days of yore, King Edward the III basically required all able bodied men to learn how to use a longbow. The King wanted a population that could be drafted to die whenever he itched to fight wars in France. There was no need for the threat of monsters to spur this idea of a competently armed populace, killing one’s own species was enough.

Towns, especially those that experience trouble on the regular, should have some plan to deal with threats that they experience. Do zombies continue to march out of the Tombwood? There is going to be a watchtower on that side of town, maybe a wall even, and all able bodied people will know the drill. If they lived there their entire lives, they are probably even good at it.

There is tension here. If a town exists, it’s pretty good at taking care of itself, but invariably, to make the story epic, defenses have to be rendered sufficiently helpless or corrupt as to make the heroes existence a necessity. That’s the whole point.

So how do we balance the need to show the town and its officials as competent while still creating a campaign?
Well here are some of the tried and true traditional methods:

  1. Ignore it. Easy enough. There are lots of little things about the standard fantasy setting that we just accept. The townsfolk are weak as kittens, but somehow managed to survive out here all by themselves. 
  2. Town as Safe Zone. It’s a point of light in the darkness, and anything outside the walls is fair game. This makes the town appear competent from time to time, and still allows plenty of low level adventure. 
  3. Epic Evil. The town can normally handle 50 orcs, but now there are 200. Help. This is really useful when your players get higher in level.

Honestly? These can be employed effectively and will probably work wonders for your campaign. No one will question this. But to me, they seem hollow. I want something else.

Another way: Town guard as a faction.
If you are a good DM, you’ll have multiple hooks, objectives, or locations for the players to choose. Maybe, while the adventurers are out murdering the kobolds, the town guard takes care of the zombie problem all by themselves. All zombie loot would become property of the city due to a robust civil forfeiture law. After that, the local lord realizes that all of the tombs in the aptly named Tombwood are basically filled with treasure and it’s time to start mounting expeditions.

From there, the town guard becomes a character or faction in your campaign, functioning as a resource for your characters. They can help in times of need, provide hirelings, and gobs of supplies. The faction can also become a hindrance. What happens to Lord Dunnywit and the guard when they recover the Corrupting Obsidian Skull?  They turn evil. This could be especially effective if characters are close friends with Lord Dunnywit. What if he is their patron? Total. Drama. Bomb.

This can take away from the feeling that the heroes are special, but treating the town (and its guard) as living breathing entity as opposed to ducklings that need to be saved can lead to a more vibrant experience.