Part III: Marissa Alexander Isn’t Really About Stand Your Ground

Posted on June 1, 2012 by

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Marissa Alexander’s case is not so much about Florida’s stand your ground law as it is about the connections between interrelated facets of her case including gender, domestic violence, and mandatory minimums. In Part I of this series, we explored the role of gender while Part II covered the double standards applied to evaluating violence in the context of domestic violence.

This last post looks at the final problem for Marissa Alexander: the mandatory minimum sentence.

Image: Amazon

A mandatory minimum is exactly what it sounds like: a minimum sentence that a judge is required to give upon certain convictions. Mandatory minimums can be tied to specific crimes, but, as we see in Alexander’s case, they can also be applied to certain circumstances as well. Florida’s 10-20-life law falls into the latter category.

The concept behind 10-20-life was a simple one, and it relies upon basic criminal justice principles outlined as far back as 1764 by Cesare Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishments. This essay sets forth many of our enduring criminal justice principles, including the idea that criminal offenders are pragmatic, rational, utility-maximizing individuals. If people know ahead of time that punishment will be swift, certain, and severe, they can make rational choices and will, hopefully be deterred from preventing crime.

That’s your crash course in Classical Criminology, by the way. Never mind that modern criminology has moved far, far away from these ideas, they still resonate and inform our current practices. It’s no surprise that the Florida legislature thought this was a grand idea.

FL DOC: Public Domain Image

It’s appealing. Make a law, publicize the hell out of it, and then follow through. They couldn’t do a lot about swift, but certain and severe were entirely within the reach of 10-20-life. So they did it.

They did it, also, against a backdrop of increasingly harsh and punitive attitudes, policies, and practices that arose from the Get Tough era of crime control in this country. The “get tough” mentality was more than a mere slogan; it was a battle cry that rang out in the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs” and in the eternal struggle to win public office. The thinking was poisonous, irrational, and contagious.

Crime was not so much a disease with treatable symptoms, as the medical model had postulated for so many decades previously, crime was something much bigger and scarier. The only way to fight crime was to do just that: fight. The language and rhetoric around crime created a frenzy in which the general public was clamoring for harsher policies and laws, and no politician could get elected on a criminal justice platform that was anything other than punitive.

Goodbye reason and compassion. Most importantly? Goodbye science and empiricism. Criminal justice polices were all based on what feels good, and what felt good back then was to be as ugly as possible. The major policies that came out of this era were truth in sentencing, three strike laws, and mandatory minimums. All of these led to our current crisis in mass incarceration.

I do have to point out that mandatory minimums, in principle, were designed to make the criminal justice more fair. Everyone hates the stories we read in the news about some violent scumbag who ultimately winds up with a sentence of time served plus probation. Mandatory minimums were supposed to fix that.

What they really did, though, was to make the entire system more harsh. Rather than function as an equalizer, mandatory minimums became an effective tool in the prosecutor’s belt during plea bargaining. It became a way to pressure the defense toward a plea bargain, and to resolve cases quickly without the messiness, time, and expense entailed by a jury trial. It certainly does not function in the way that it was intended.

So how does all of this relate to Marissa Alexander?

It’s the last piece in her painful puzzle.  She got a 20 year sentence not because what she did was so horrible, but because she got swept up in the unintended consequences of bad public policy and legislation. Mandatory minimums, by definition, remove judicial discretion. While the judge has come under fire for the sentence, it truly wasn’t his fault. That’s how 10-20-life works.

Marissa Alexander is just another case file that gets shoved in the heap of unintended consequences. She thought she was innocent, she thought it worth the fight. In the end, it wasn’t.

Like all gamblers, the players in the criminal justice system have to remember that the house always wins. It’s not fair, it’s not designed to be fair. The house wins.

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