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Watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mandatory Minimums

Mary Jane Gibson

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John Oliver delivered a brilliant, impassioned, and improbably funny look at mandatory minimum sentences on this week’s Last Week Tonight, building a case to repeal the laws with a look at the beginning of anti-drug hysteria in the ‘80s. He aired clips of wacko anti-drug PSAs featuring the likes of PeeWee Herman, Mr. T., and the Muppet Babies, and broke down why the harsh sentences are an outdated, terrible idea that have done far more harm than good.

Thousands of Americans are rotting in jail for non-violent, often first-time offenses because of mandatory minimum sentences that even the judges imposing them are often opposed to. Although the tide is starting to turn against mandatory minimums, it’s an agonizingly slow process, especially for prisoners who are still serving time for offenses that now receive far less stiff sentences. At the federal level, some mandatory minimums have been reduced, and on the local level, 29 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory-minimum laws. But for the most part, Oliver points out, “Those reforms have not been made retroactive, meaning thousands of people are currently stuck in prison for crimes that would carry far shorter sentences if they’d committed them just a few years later. Just think about how annoyed you get when people who get seated after you at a restaurant get served and leave before you. Only in this case, the food is prison food, the restaurant is prison, and dinner takes 55 fucking years.”

Oliver is referring to the case of Weldon Angelos, a father of two who received that 55-year sentence for low-level marijuana dealing while in possession of a firearm. It’s heartbreaking to watch Angelos’ now-grown son speaking of his father’s ongoing prison time. Oliver makes a painful joke about someone needing to be a plane-hijacking, child-raping terrorist to receive that stiff a sentence, saying that would have to be “a person so evil I legitimately don’t know if one has ever existed.”

It’s also deeply moving to watch Jason Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for dealing drugs including crack, read his commutation from President Obama. This segment of Last Week Tonight should be required viewing for every policy maker. Watch the segment below for a smart, painful and funny overview of the disastrous mandatory minimum requirements in America.

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