John Oliver Just Revealed the Insane Double Standard Behind Our Drug Laws

July 27th 2015

Sarah Gray

On Sunday's "Last Week Tonight," host John Oliver examined yet another facet of mass incarceration: mandatory minimum sentencing. (He has previously reported on bail and spent time discussing America's broken prison system.)

Several weeks ago, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners who were serving long sentences for low-level drug crimes due to harsh, "tough-on-crime" laws created in the 1980s and 1990s.

"These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses," said President Obama, explaining his decision to grant clemency to these 46 prisoners. "So their punishments didn’t fit the crime—and if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would’ve already served their time."

These men and women were just 46 out of many who are incarcerated as a result of mandatory minimum sentences that must be handed out for certain crimes whether or not the judge agrees that the sentence fits that particular case. One of the key problems with mandatory minimums is that they tie the hands of the judge and force him to hand out a certain, minimum sentence.

Members of Congress are beginning to realize that these laws are unhelpful. It is costly to incarcerate so many for so long (it can be around $20,000 to keep one person in prison for a year), and mandatory minimum sentences do little to actually deter crime -- the reason they were enacted in the first place. Those discussing reform range from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

ATTN: recently released a video about the racial component of mandatory sentencing laws:

The Real History of Drugs Episode 1: Cocaine

The dark history of why cocaine is illegal...(ATTN: is excited to launch a new series about the history of illegal drugs).

Posted by ATTN: on Sunday, June 21, 2015


For decades, mandatory sentencing for powder cocaine have been shorter than sentences for crack cocaine. This has resulted in a disproportionate incarceration of Black people because white people more often use powder cocaine, while Black people more often use crack cocaine. Although they are improving, these sentencing disparities still exist and are an example of the racial inequity at the center of our nation's mass incarceration problem.