Mandatory minimum sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug related offences were first introduced in the United States in 1951 with the Boggs Act.  Later in 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control revoked the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It also allowed the authority of sentencing to be granted to the prosecutors rather than the federal judges. (Testimony and Statement for the Record of William B. Moffitt, President National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) Time however, would repeat itself and prove once again that this particular method of sentencing does not work in the way it was intended.

 In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act rewrote and reinstated mandatory minimum sentencing for drug related offences.  Five and ten year sentences became the mandatory minimums for the distribution and importing of drugs. (Testimony and Statement for the Record of William B. Moffitt, President National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers)  In 1988 congress agreed to include “drug conspiracies and certain drug offences” to be determined by “the type of drug.” Also included in the mandatory minimum sentencing is “the presence of a firearm during a felony offense.”  (The Issue)

The overall problem with mandatory minimum sentencing is that it doesn’t seem to reach the hardcore drug dealers that it was intended too.  Actually, crack cocaine is the only drug that triggers a 5 year mandatory sentence for a first-time offender who possesses 5 grams.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission contends that “only 5.5% of federal crack defendants are high-level dealers. (Drug War Facts) There are however, other problems with mandatory minimum sentencing.

Problems with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

· The majority of the criminals the law effects are low-level offenders.

· The majority of the offenders the law effects are minorities.

· Prosecutors now have the authority to determine whether or not a charge should be reduced and they also determine sentencing.

· The mandatory minimum sentencing laws have had little affect on crime and arrest ratios.  (Drug War Facts)

· Sentencing is only determined by the charge.  Individual circumstances are not considered.

· The cost of incarcerating a drug offender is greater than the cost of either out-patient or residential rehabilitation.  (The Issue)

Although the mandatory minimum sentencing laws were intended for good, for the most part, that has not been the outcome.  The inflexible sentencing laws are unfair in that they don’t allow consideration of the circumstances of individual cases.  Handing off the authority of sentencing to the prosecutors is also an area of great concern.  Currently, federal judges who believe they have justification in departing from the guidelines established for sentencing, must publically justify their reasons and then it is reviewed by the appellate court.  Since the decisions of prosecutors are not reviewed by anyone, the result is equal offenders not proportionately receiving equal sentences.

Mandatory minimums have also proved to be unfair to minorities.  In studies done by the United States Sentencing Commission and the Federal Judicial Center, white defendants are much more likely to escape mandatory minimum penalties than are African Americans or Hispanics.  While African Americans comprise only six percent of the population, they encompass fifty percent of the prison population. While thirty percent of convicted federal drug offenders are white, both African Americans and Hispanics individually comprise over thirty-three percent. These are alarming statistics.  (Testimony and Statement for the Record of William B. Moffitt, President National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers)

It is the duty of the United States Sentencing Commission to establish sentencing policies and practices as related to congressional issues, to determine whether or not they are effectual and to make amendments that will improve the guidelines.  Finally, they recommend legislation needed in order to amend the guidelines. The Commission has suggested amendments that regard all forms of cocaine equally. They have also recommended that individual circumstances such as whether or not there was a weapon involved, whether or not juveniles were involved, as well as criminal history be considered. Furthermore, they have recommended the revocation of the mandatory minimum sentencing.  It’s believed that these steps will reduce the racial disparity within the criminal justice system.  (Testimony and Statement for the Record of William B. Moffitt, President National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers)

The mandatory minimum sentencing laws have failed.  They have failed in two ways.  First, they have not accomplished what they were established to do.  Second, they have actually been the root of other problems that have developed within an already flawed criminal justice system.

The public has already seen the failure of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  Fifty-six percent of adults support abolishing the sentencing laws and they also support giving the sentencing authority back to the judges.  (The Issue)  It’s time for lawmakers to fess up and admit the failure of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  The sooner they do, the sooner new, more effective laws can be introduced that will really make a difference.