What is Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?
A mandatory minimum sentence is exactly what it sounds like – a required minimum sentence for a specific crime. In theory, this seems equitable – anyone convicted of a crime receives the same punishment no matter what. In reality, it effectively removes any consideration of the unique circumstances of the crime or defendant’s history, mandating severe punishments for offenses committed by people, and it undermines judges’ ability to do their jobs – to judge.
The History of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
In response to rising crime rates in the 1970s, Congress passed the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. Legislators motivated to be seen favorably as tough on crime supported the measure.
Prior to the passing of the Sentencing Reform Act, the power to determine sentences based on the specific circumstances of a convicted person lie with judges – people entrusted by citizens to act in good faith and make rational, fair decisions about crimes and sentencing. They followed sentencing guidelines but had the final say in passing down appropriate sentences given the specifics of a case.
The Sentencing Reform Act incapacitated judges’ power to determine appropriate sentences and enforced mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes by law, including drug crimes.
Why Mandatory Minimums?
Legislators and legal scholars anticipated that harsh mandatory sentences would deter people from committing crimes. Afraid of the consequences, they would think twice. Unfortunately, this logic failed to take into account things like research showing the ineffectiveness of prison as a general deterrent to criminal behavior, substance abuse addiction, and generational trauma. In addition, the logic completely disregards the impacts systemic racism and the disproportionately negative impacts mandatory sentences have on Black people.
The Effects of Mandatory Minimums – On Prosecutors
Prosecutors armed with the threat of mandatory minimum sentences are able to use them as a tool to achieve guilty pleas for lesser offenses. Rather than risk going to trial, being convicted, and spending a long time in prison, people accused of crimes often prefer to enter into plea bargains, even for crimes they didn’t commit. The threat of a mandatory minimum is enough to force innocent people to relinquish their right to have the facts of their case heard in court.
The Effects of Mandatory Minimums – On the Accused
Longer sentences don’t magically create law-abiding citizens. In fact, the opposite is true. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, more than two-thirds of people released from prison were arrested again within three years. Keeping people in prison longer only serves to deplete state resources, using taxpayer dollars to perpetuate a cycle of incarceration rather than rehabilitation.
The Effects of Mandatory Minimums – On Judges
Judges have lost the ability to perform a primary function of their roles – to use their knowledge and ethics to determine appropriate sentences. The Sentencing Reform Act fundamentally changed the way they operate, and many judges are frustrated, particularly when it comes to non-violent drug offenses. One federal judge on NPR.org called it “a travesty” that the mandatory minimums impose the same consequences on people addicted to drugs who are involved in drug crimes to obtain drugs for themselves as they would for high-level drug traffickers.
The Effects of Mandatory Minimums – On Prisons
Long mandatory sentences have dramatically increased prison populations. One study by the National Research Council found that, between 1980 and 2010, half of the massive 222% increase in the prison population was due to longer sentencing. The frequency of life sentences has also increased substantially. A study by The Sentencing Project found an 11% increase in the number of people serving life sentences between 2008 and 2012.
The Effects of Mandatory Minimums – On Racial Disparities
People of color are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimum sentencing according to a federal studyof sentencing guidelines. The study found that Black and Latinx people are subject to more severe punishments than white people. Indeed, it found that “Mandatory minimum sentence laws have not ensured that all of those involved in the proscribed behaviors receive at least the minimum term.”
Have Mandatory Minimum Sentences Reduced Crime?
Definitively, no. Many factors contribute to reduced crime rates, but keeping people, especially people convicted of non-violent crimes, in prison longer is not one of them. A study in the American Review of Political Economy found that the inverse may be true, finding that a one percent increase in the prison population increases violent crime by 28 percent. More incarceration drives an increase in violent crimes.
What You Can Do
The Fair Fight Initiative works to expose unfair treatment in the legal system. Through crowd fundraising, the Fair Fight Initiative provides legal representation to victims of injustice. The Fair Fight Initiative also promotes advocacy campaigns to bring these inequalities to light.
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