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John Oliver's eye-opening, haunting segment on mandatory minimum sentences for drugs

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Sunday slammed mandatory minimum sentences that can place people in prison for decades or even life for nonviolent offenses.

"Mandatory minimums require judges to punish certain crimes with a minimum number of years in prison regardless of context, which is a little strange, because context is important," Oliver said. "For instance, shouting the phrase 'I'm coming!' is fine when catching a bus, but not okay when you're already on the bus."

Oliver ran through many of the ways these types of policies have failed — from their contribution to mass incarceration to the lack of evidence that they helped reduce crime.

Mandatory minimums are "partially responsible for the explosion of our prison population"

Last Week Tonight/HBO

Since 1980, the prison population in the entire US has more than quadrupled. As Oliver pointed out, some of this growth can be blamed on harsher drug sentencing laws — especially at the federal level.

"We have 2 million people incarcerated," Oliver said. "If we keep going this direction, we'll soon have enough to populate an entire new country with prisoners."

But drug offenders make up a small portion of the overall prison population. About 54 percent of prisoners at the state level — which house more than 86 percent of the prison population — were violent offenders in 2012, and 16 percent were drug offenders, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But about 51 percent of federal prisoners are drug offenders, BJS found. So mandatory minimums played a significant role at the federal level, which makes up a small portion of the prison population, but not as much of a role at the state level, where most prisoners are housed.

"Mandatory minimums have had a real human cost"

Last Week Tonight/HBO

Still, the population of nonviolent drug offenders who are impacted by mandatory minimums can have their lives literally ruined for low-level crimes. Oliver cited the story of several prisoners serving decades-long or life sentences for mandatory minimums — including Weldon Angelos, a father and nonviolent drug offender who's serving 55 years in prison for marijuana trafficking.

In 2002, police caught Angelos selling marijuana while allegedly possessing a firearm in three separate stings. Federal prosecutors stacked each of these stings into three offenses, with all the charges adding up to a 55-year minimum prison sentence with no chance of parole. Once Angelos was found guilty, the judge had to hand down this minimum sentence, regardless of his views.

Angelos's case is so egregious that the judge who handed down the sentence is now speaking out against it. "I do think about Angelos," Paul Cassell, the retired Utah judge who tried Angelos's case, told ABC News. "I sometimes drive on the interstate by the prison where he's held, and I think, 'That wasn't the right thing to do, and the system forced me to do it.'"

Oliver put the case in a different context. "He won't get out until he's 79," he said, "for selling something that's currently legal for recreational use in four states, and whose main side effect is making episodes of Frasier slightly funnier."

More incarceration doesn't necessarily mean less crime

Christophe Haubursin and Matt Yglesias/Vox

It would be one thing if the evidence showed that these sentences significantly reduce crime, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Oliver pointed to the congressional testimony of Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now speaks out against them through the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn't think they were going to get caught," he told Congress. "So you can make the severity off the charts — you can do a life sentence for jaywalking — it's not going to stop it."

The research backs this up: Criminologists generally agree that more incarceration only contributed to a small portion of the nationwide drop in crime since the 1990s. In terms of violent crime, a review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that the US was already locking up truly violent criminals in the 1980s — before crime began dropping in the 1990s. So while there must have been some effect, it wasn't big enough to overcome the crime wave of the 1980s. Brennan suggests that something else — most likely a combination of many variables — triggered the big fall in crime.

What's worse, incarceration can also backfire and lead to more crime in the long run. When someone is thrown in prison, he's exposed and connected to all sorts of violent criminals and gangs that he may not have socialized with before. And on a broader scale, pulling large chunks of young men from their communities can lead to the kind of socioeconomic squalor that produces more crime. As Mark Kleiman, a criminal justice expert at New York University's Marron Institute, indicated, some research shows adding another prisoner in some states leads to more crime.

"Drugs have hurt people, for sure," Oliver acknowledged. "But the mandatory minimum sentencing laws designed to stop them have done way more harm than good."

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