Sentence Smarter, Not Harder

There is no statistic that better represents the severity of America’s criminal justice system: with 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Such a high number leads us to wonder if it is possible to reduce crime without imprisoning 1 in 100 Americans. A significant proportion of the increase is due to mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums strip judges of their discretion and take a “tough on crime” approach that is ineffective, expensive, and unjust. 

Common law traditionally provided judges with discretion over sentencing. The individual circumstances of cases were taken into account, and punishments were designed to fit the crime. 

This all began to change in the 1960s, when growing community concern about sentencing disparities fueled calls for a more standardized system. By the mid-1980s, a concerted effort by lawmakers had culminated in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Combined with several other measures, this act created a standardized system of sentencing that attempted to resolve the supposed “problem” of judicial autonomy. Over time, the number of crimes subject to mandatory minimum sentencing skyrocketed. The result has been a neutering of the judiciary and an explosion in unnecessary imprisonment.

Today, the United States incarcerates 2.3 million people. That is more than any other country on both a total and per capita basis. Forty percent of these offenders have violated a statute that requires a mandatory minimum sentence longer than ten years.

Amongst the crimes specifically targeted in 1984 were drug offences, with the Armed Career Criminal Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act requiring mandatory sentences for crimes regardless of the circumstances. These bills have led to the conviction of many individuals who pose little or no threat to society. They are victims of the Drug War, convicted of nonviolent crimes and put behind bars because of mandatory minimums.

Mandatory minimums have perverse effects on the judicial system, coming into play at arbitrary points.  In the case of cocaine possession, for example, if someone is caught with 4.9 grams, he or she receives a relatively short sentence. However, if caught with 5.0 grams, the defendant is sentenced to half a decade in federal prison. These illogical standards, coupled with the fact that 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas, renders the expertise of the judiciary worthless.   

In its place, aggressive prosecutors act with the discretion that the laws were designed to stamp out. The only role left for judges is to rubberstamp the sentence.

One egregious example of a judge having no choice but to implement a mandatory minimum sentence was in the case of Weldon Angelos. Forced to sentence the father of three to 55 years in prison for the distribution of marijuana, Judge Paul Cassell described the sentence as “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”

The social and economic costs of mandatory minimums also place an undue financial burden on the taxpayer. The financial cost of imprisoning each individual amounted to $30,000 per year in 2010. When coupled with loss of the economic productivity that a person might otherwise generate, it seems impossible to make the case that the economic benefit of mandatory minimums exceeds the costs. Unfortunately, this is far from the most serious harm.

Even after having served their sentence, felons have significantly reduced job prospects and are excluded from many welfare benefits, public housing, and the ability to vote. As a result three-quarters of felons are rearrested within five years of their release. However, the harm extends beyond the felon. In 2000, there were an estimated 2.1 million American children with incarcerated fathers. If we are serious about reinstating family values, reforming the judicial system is a good place to start.

These policies are particularly harmful to minority communities. Despite being no more likely to use drugs than white men, young black men are far more likely to be imprisoned for drug use. This is in large part because of mandatory minimum sentences. They have helped create an incarceration rate for black Americans which Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow, has described as “exceed[ing] that of South Africa under Apartheid.”

Restoring sentencing power to judges requires eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. Hopefully, allowing judges to appropriately sentence offenders for the crime will result in fewer long-term convictions, a lower recidivism rate, more focus on rehabilitation, and more savings of taxpayer money.