Brow Beat

John Oliver Explains—With Penis Jokes—Why Mandatory Minimum Sentences Have Got to Go

Mandatory minimum sentences can send Americans to prison for decades for even low-level drug offenses—regardless of context—as John Oliver explained on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight. Even the judges who are forced to issue these sentences often think they’re egregiously unfair. As Oliver put it, “Prison sentences are a lot like penises: If they’re used correctly, even a short one can do the trick.” 

So why do we have them? Most mandatory minimum sentencing laws were written during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, when politicians from both sides of the aisle raced to outdo each other when it came to being “tough on drugs.” Though the policies were immensely popular, almost everyone agrees they were a mistake, and what’s worse, they’ve contributed to the United States’ insane incarceration rate. But, as Oliver notes, even getting rid of mandatory minimums—as some states have already done—isn’t enough. Unless we pass laws that allow mandatory minimums to be reduced retroactively, many prisoners will remain stuck in prison. If that frustration is difficult to relate to, Oliver suggests you consider how angry you get when people arrive at a restaurant after you, and still manage to sit, eat, and leave before you. “Only, in this case, the food is prison food, the restaurant is prison, and dinner takes 55 fucking years.”