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Are Mandatory Minimum Sentences Putting the Right People in Prison?


The Costly Consequences of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Mandatory minimum sentencing has become a controversial topic within recent months, especially after Attorney General Eric Holder's August 2013 announcement that he would seek to cut mandatory minimums for drug offenders. The term "war on drugs" was coined in the 1980s by politicians who promised to get tough on crack cocaine offenders.

The problem with this war is that it has no foreseeable end. The consequences have been overcrowded federal prisons (our nation's prison population has increased 800 percent since 1980), an economic burden of nearly $80 billion per year and thousands of low-level drug offenders serving prison sentences of seven years or longer. When it comes to the mandatory minimum debate, there are three important questions that need to be addressed:

  • Who is being imprisoned under the mandatory minimums?
  • Is the length of imprisonment under mandatory minimums proportionate to the crime?
  • Does the end goal justify the financial burden mandatory minimums place on our nation?

Low-Level Offenders Affected by Mandatory Minimums

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), 90,000 offenders are currently in custody under mandatory minimum sentences - that is, 90,000 individuals imprisoned since 1986 when mandatory minimums were first implemented in the U.S. Of those inmates, more than 45,000 are drug offenders.

Going further, 35 percent of all drug offenders imprisoned under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are considered low-level offenders. "Low-level" typically means that the offense was non-violent and the offender had no prior arrest. Low-level drug offenders serve an average of nearly 7 years in prison. The intended goal of mandatory minimums was to catch drug kingpins and lock away major drug cartels. Low-level and first-time drug offenders are undoubtedly unintended victims of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Is anything being done to change this? - This has become a bi-partisan issue. Various bills have been proposed on both ends of the political spectrum. Among those pushing the changes to mandatory minimum sentencing law are (R-Kentucky) Rand Paul and (D-Illinois) Richard Durbin.

What legislative changes have been proposed? Talks to amend mandatory minimum sentencing have included proposals to:

  • Cut the length of minimum sentences in half
  • Allow judges to have more options when sentencing
  • For inmates previously convicted under current/old requirements, the ability to apply new crack cocaine sentencing requirements
  • Programs inmates (in prison for non-violent crimes) could participate in to reduce their sentence length

2010 Fair Sentencing Act

In August 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law. While the Fair Sentencing Act aimed to amend sentencing for a variety of criminal offenses, some of its most notable accomplishments were:

  • Lowered the gap between the amount of crack and powder cocaine that would trigger mandatory federal sentencing, specifically from 100:1 to 18:1 weight ratio.
  • Prior to this law, judges were required to sentence a defendant to a minimum of 5 years in prison for possession of crack cocaine. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, this was eliminated.

Although the Fair Sentencing Act will likely reduce the U.S. prison population and cut federal spending, many argue that there is still more to be done.

Prosecutor Opposition

Prosecutors are pushing back against the proposed changes saying that the move to reduce sentencing for drug offenders is purely financial. Many argue that mandatory minimum sentences are a vital leveraging tool that has helped significantly drive down drug crime in the past two decades, but the cost of keeping drug offenders in prison under current mandatory minimum sentencing is a legitimate concern.

Is Prison Always the Answer?

When it comes to punishing drug offenders, is prison always the answer? The proof is in the pudding. Experience shows us that imposing lengthy prison sentences on low-level and first-time drug offenders does little to reduce recidivism. Alternative sentencing options such as drug rehabilitation and deferred entry of judgment (DEJ) are more cost-effective for our nation, but more importantly, are a more fitting punishment for low-level drug offenders.

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