Speed Reads


John Oliver just might make you passionately hate mandatory minimum sentences

The main subject of Sunday's Last Week Tonight was mandatory minimum prison sentences. And if that sounds dry and boring, John Oliver does a typically impressive job of making it relevant, entertaining, and infuriating. "Mandatory minimums require judges to punish certain crimes with a minimum number of years in prison, regardless of context," Oliver explained. "Which is a little strange, because context is important." He provided a salty example to prove his point.

These laws, passed mostly in the "anti-drug hysteria" of the 1980s and '90s, are "partially responsible for the explosion of our prison population," Oliver said. There is now a bipartisan consensus that they don't work, have done more harm than good, and need to be repealed, he added, after gratuitously insulting all Australians but Hugh Jackman. "Ridiculously long sentences are not a great deterrent to crime. Prison sentences are a lot like penises: If they're used correctly, even a short one can do the trick — is a rumor I have heard."

Two dozen states have rolled back their mandatory-minimum laws, but haven't made that retroactive. "And that's terrible," Oliver said. "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 f—ing years." The examples he shows of people caught up in these laws is the most powerful part, and if you tear up a bit, you're not alone. Peter Weber