Each year in America many people received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society. Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in the American Justice System has long been argued by both Lawmakers and the public. We will go over some of the history of mandatory minimum sentences as well as the many pros and cons to these types of sentences. Some examples of pros and cons are the overall effect on public safety, the effect on the offenders, the cost to taxpayers, the lack of discretion for Judge’s, and whether the law should be repealed.
The history of Mandatory Minimum sentencing laws date back to the founding of this country, the idea of swift and certain punishment has always been popular among the public and lawmakers. However, throughout time it has never accomplished its intended goal to eliminate a particular crime. Today’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws require automatic prison terms for those who are convicted of certain federal and state crimes.
Some acts we will go over are mostly those established throughout the 1980’s.
During this time several acts came into effect and are known as the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Today many argue that these laws to harsh and need to be revised. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act came into effect in 1984. As stated by O’Bryant & Seghetti “This Act overhauled the federal sentencing system and revised bail and forfeiture procedures along with other federal practices” (O’Bryant & Seghetti, 2002).
According to NCJRS “The bill’s main sections cover bail, sentencing reform, forfeiture of assets, the insanity defense, penalties for drug law offenses, federal grants and other assistance in the area of criminal justice, and transfers of surplus Federal property to States or localities. Additional sections focus on labor racketeering, reporting regarding currency and foreign transactions, prosecution of certain juveniles as adults, wiretaps, witness relocation and protection, the acquisition of foreign evidence, and speedy trials” (NCJRS, 2011).
The Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was signed by Ronald Reagan which according to pbs. org “appropriated $1. 7 billion to fight the drug crisis. $97 Million is allocated to build new prisons, $200 million for drug education and $241 million for treatment. The bill’s most consequential action is the creation of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. Possession of at least on kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine is punishable by at least ten years in prison (For more breakdowns on sentencing and first time offenders see Attachment 1).
In response to the crack epidemic, the sale of five grams of drugs leads to a mandatory five-year sentence” (pbs. org, 2011). These laws have had little to no effect on drug crime; if we take a look at history, the decline in crime has not been substantial in fact it has gone up with the number of arrests and overall incarcerations (see Attachments 2 ; 3). The drug arrest numbers show a large increase from about 400,000 in the mid 1980’s to more than 800,000 in 2008. Incarceration went up from less than 500,000 in the mid 1980’s to more than 2,300,000 in 2008 (Chromeswan, 2010).
The increase of imprisonment is directly linked to mandatory minimum sentences, which might turn a person who potentially could be rehabilitated, into a career criminal due to harsh sentencing. With longer sentencing comes the risk of recidivism by lower risk offenders who are negatively affected by the prison system. According to Jeralyn, 2005 “A survey of several states with large numbers of youths in the adult system found increased recidivism among youths who are treated as adults. In other words, “Adult time for adult crime” is a failure” (Jeralyn, 2005).
Who really suffers from these long sentences? It’s shown that most of the drug arrests are the lower level dealers and not the actual kingpins that the legislature was after. Since there are no provisions to allow for leniency this turns defendants into informants in order to get credit for assisting the prosecutors, therefore getting a reduced sentence. This can lead to corrupt convictions due to coerce guilty pleas to lesser offenses. This basically gives too much power to prosecutors who use the leverage of mandatory minimum sentences as a bargaining tool.
This can be done through false testimonies from a defendant who would probably be going to prison anyway but will lie for a lesser sentence (Batey, 2002). As stated by Batey “Another major reason why mandatory minimum sentencing has failed is that it has given America’s prosecutors too much power in plea bargaining, an imbalance that has led to the incarceration of persons to fearful to insist on the trails that might have acquitted them” (Batey, 2002. P. 2). As a result of mandatory minimum sentencing we now have overcrowding of our prisons system with minor criminals some of whom may be innocent.
This in turn has made racial and ethnic bias perceptions due to the majority of offenders being incarcerated are of African American heritage or of Hispanic heritage. According to Sterngold, 2008 “Most of California’s prisons house more than 170,000 inmates, nearly twice the number it was designed to safely hold. Almost all of its facilities are bursting at the seams: More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as “ugly beds”—extra bucks stuffed into cells, gyms, dayrooms, and hallways.
The effects of overcrowding—electrical blackouts, sewage spills, dozens of riots, and more than 1,600 attacks on prison guards in the previous year have caused the Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency. The state has the highest recidivism rate in the country, close to 70 percent-compared with about 50 percent nationwide” (Sterngold, 2008). In order to help out prison overcrowding, we should focus on drug rehabilitation and treatment programs. Another way is through job placement programs for those members who have completed treatment.
Studies have shown that when individuals are employed they are more likely to be successful in treatment and to remain drug free after. According to West, 2008 “Employment has also been found to correlate with less severe rates of substance use before treatment, shorter lifetime rates of use and addiction, and lower rates of co-occurring conditions and outcomes typically associated with use. Competitive employment is also thought to aid in recovery process by facilitating increases in self-worth and by aiding in the building of drug-free peer relations” (West, 2008. P. 1).
Programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) focus on elementary school children and teaching them to resist using drugs. These programs teach children to resist peer pressure and how to make better decisions. Some critics of mandatory sentencing feel that money spent on long incarcerations is less beneficial in the war against drugs and could be better spent on other programs designed to fight drug abuse (Montaldo, 2011). So if we look at ways of lowering cost to taxpayers one might say that drug programs are more beneficial than mandatory minimum sentencing.
As stated in rand. org “Most drug-related crime is economically motivated–undertaken, for example, to procure money to support a habit or to settle scores between rival dealers. The level of economically motivated crime is related to the amount of money flowing through the cocaine market. When a treated dealer stays off drugs, that means less money flowing into the market–therefore, less crime. When a dealer facing greater enforcement pressure raises his price to compensate or the increased risk, buyers will reduce the amount of cocaine they purchase. A 1997 RAND study found that treatment of heavy drug users was eight-to-nine times more cost-effective than long (six to seven-year) mandatory sentences in reducing drug use, sales and drug-related crime” (rand. org, 1997). According to prisonpolicy. org the average cost to tax payers for one individual to be imprisoned for a year is $22,000 (prisonpolicy. org, 2011). Very little of this money goes to the prisoner themselves.
Some states spend more annually to house prisoners than it would cost to send them to the best state college. As stated by Feigley, 2011 “For about $18,000 a prisoner could get a college education” Feigley, 2011). According to Price, 2006 “With the increase in longer sentencing the average age of the inmate population over the age of 50 has increased by 61% in the past five years while the overall inmate population has increased by only 16%. Accelerated medical and mental health issues and costs accompany increase in inmate age.
Though exact costs are difficult to determine, national estimates calculate the total cost of housing an older inmate (age 50 or older) as three times that of a younger inmate. The average cost for health care (dental, medical, mental health, and pharmaceutical) for an inmate under age 50 was $1,919 in fiscal year 2004-2005 while that cost was $7,159 for an average inmate age 50 or older” (Price, 2006, P. 2-4). Before the onset of mandatory minimum sentencing judges had the discretion to impose a sentence they felt fit the crime.
It also gave them room to take other things into consideration like the seriousness of the offense, the offenders past history, and any other mitigating circumstances that may be important to the case. Mandatory minimum sentences impose very strict restrictions on judges and leave little to no discretion for the judges presiding over a hearing. These regimes allow little to no discretion in the system to take into account the members past criminal history, circumstances surrounding the case, or any other information that may otherwise influence their decisions.
Some judges vehemently oppose this law because it prevents them from considering mitigating circumstances when they enter a sentence. With mandatory minimums their hands are tied to the law of state. One reason this came into effect is because as stated by Risley, 2000 “What some judges treated as serious offenses, and punished accordingly, others minimized with much more lenient sentences. Ironically, more lenient sentences became particularly prevalent in areas with high volumes of major drug crime, such as large metropolitan and drug importation centers.
When serious crime becomes routine, there is human tendency to treat it routinely and sentences often drop accordingly” (Risley, 2000). The Pros to mandatory minimum sentencing could be looked at in that it keeps sentencing consistent and the same across the board for all defendants regardless of race or creed. However in that same notion, some of these mandatory minimums are looked at as being racial in nature simply by the certain drugs and the amounts present during the arrest, required for sentencing.
Another con is that it encourages plea bargains for a lesser sentence even though they might not be guilty but fear they will be prosecuted anyway. Attachment 1 Federal mandatory drug sentences (for first offenders) Type of drug 5-year sentence* 10-year sentence* LSD 1 gram ** 10 grams Marijuana 100 plants or 1,000 plants or 100 kilos ***1,000 kilos Crack cocaine 5 grams 50 grams Powder cocaine 500 grams 5 kilos Heroin 100 grams 1 kilo Methamphetamine 5 grams 50 grams
PCP 10 grams 100 grams * There is no parole in the federal system. ** A gram is roughly equal to a single packet of sweetener. *** A kilo is equal to 2. 2 lb. (Information provided by prisonpolicy. org, 2011) Attachment 2 The following data came from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and is a plot of U. S. Domestic Arrests from 1986 to the present. (Information provided by John, 2010) Attachment 3 (Information provided by Chromeswan, 2010)
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