Should mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses be reconsidered?
May 6, 2015
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
In 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Smart on Crime, a policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from seeking mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. The policy shift was the first time in nearly two decades that the Department of Justice did not seek lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes in the federal courts.
“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety,” Holder said in his speech at the National Press Club in February 2015. “I have made a break from that philosophy.”
What are mandatory minimum sentences?
Part of the war on drugs in the mid-1980s, mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes were heralded as a way to curb rising crime rates.
“This was a different time in our history,” U.S. District Judge John Gleeson told NPR. “Crime rates were way up; there was a lot of violence that was perceived to be associated with crack at the time. People in Congress meant well.”
Under federal laws, minimum jail terms are mandatory for people who are found guilty of possessing, selling, or trafficking drugs. Aimed at getting drugs off the streets, the laws were designed to punish drug kingpins and street dealers with the maximum authority of the law.
In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, making the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine punishable by a mandatory five-year prison sentence. A criminal would have to possess 500 grams of pure cocaine to receive the same punishment since crack is cocaine mixed with non-drug ingredients. Possession of marijuana also meant a lengthy jail term, which has led to conflict in states that have legalized marijuana in recent years.
Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the bipartisan bill was championed as a way for judges to prosecute drug crimes with harsh federally mandated punishments. Reagan said: “Now in the 11th hour of this Presidency, we give a new sword and shield to those whose daily business is to eliminate from America’s streets and towns the scourge of illicit drugs.”
Nearly 20 years later, politicians and policymakers have begun to change their tune about mandatory minimum sentences. The federal prison population has grown dramatically, from 25,000 in 1980 to over 219,000 in 2012, an increase of 790 percent, reports the Congressional Research Service. This means that one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole for drug crimes.
Critics of mandatory minimum sentencing cite the unequal application of punishment for drug convictions compared to other crimes. Since the 1980s, the United States has experienced a steady drop in crime, yet the prison population continues to grow; larger percentages of the federal and state prison populations are nonviolent drug offenders. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nearly half of all federal prisoners are drug offenders. The Bureau of Justice reports that about one in every five prisoners in state prisons is serving for a drug offense. This growing prison population means more tax dollars have to go to incarceration. Over $50 billion is being spent annually just for state prisons, reports the National Association of State Budget Officers, and $7 billion a year to house federal prisoners.
Holder, like Gleeson, also argues that minimum sentences takes the authority away from the judge to determine the sentence and puts it in the hands of the prosecution, which contradicts one of the very basic ideas of our legal system. “Mandatory minimums, to some degree, sometimes entirely, take judging out of the mix,” Gleeson says. “That’s a bad thing for our system.”
Prosecutors have argued for mandatory minimum sentences, saying they present a powerful negotiating tool. Prosecutors say that drug dealers will often cooperate with law enforcement or plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid spending up to a decade in prison. Proponents also argue that minimum sentences, while harsh, equalize the punishment for drug offenders, insuring that individuals are adequately and equally punished for their crimes.
Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor, argues that mandatory minimum sentences contributed to the declining crime rates and put criminals in jail. “There is a reason that stiff sentencing came about,” Otis says. “It was an answer to the crime wave during the ’60s and ’70s. And the answer has been successful. People are safer now than they were at any time since the baby boomers were in grade school.”
In order for mandatory minimum sentences to be overturned, Congress would have to pass a bill that would be signed into law by the president.
What do you think?
Is it time to reconsider mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders? Do you agree with Attorney General Holder’s move away from the zero-tolerance approach to drug offenses? Should the federal government continue to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
Join the Discussion