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Mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges: Why they don't work

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a misguided strategy intended to reduce drug-related crimes. As a federal sentencing scheme, it emerged in the late 1980s in response to a bipartisan crackdown on drugs.

Advocates contend that laws of this kind deter potential criminal activity and simplify anti-drug objectives. They also maintain that minimum sentences help keep high-level drug dealers off the streets. Yet, the reality is much more complicated.

What exactly are mandatory minimums?

Certain drug crimes automatically carry harsh consequences. Mandatory minimum sentences link specific criminal convictions with a preset minimum number of years that must be served. Most minimums carry 5- or 10-year prison terms. The precise requirements depend on the charges and circumstances involved.

Why are they ineffective?

Mandatory minimums are popular among politicians who want to get elected and pander to fear of crimes. You can bet Donald Trump's Justice Department would move to increase these draconian sentences. However, among the lawyers and judges who apply them on a daily basis, mandatory minimums have drawn numerous criticisms:

  • A chief concern with this kind of sentencing is that it removes the human element from the equation. Courts must simply follow the formula rather than use their highly trained judgment to evaluate the unique elements of each case and each defendant. These laws don't allow judges to do their job, which is to do justice for individuals.
  • What's more, these sentences often don't attain their goal of putting high-level dealers behind bars. In general, larger quantities of drugs lead to harsher sentences. But it's rarely the drug kingpins themselves who get caught red-handed with their stashes. Instead, lower-level dealers, users and those who are paid minimum funds to carry drugs for others are typically the ones who get arrested and sentenced for possession. These low-level offenders end up facing severe punishment while the larger hierarchies of circulation and distribution remain relatively unaffected.
  • Another disadvantage is the high costs associated with mandatory minimum sentences. They tend to far exceed those of discretionary sentencing. And because dealers and users often fall back into the same habits once released, the justice system as a whole experiences a heavier burden of continual arrests and charges.
  • And, in some ways most importantly, these laws as applied are racially and economically biased with the highest sentences going to poor and primarily nonwhite defendants.

An alternative: Treatment-based sentencing

Several recent studies demonstrate that resources would be better spent if allocated toward drug treatment programs rather than minimum sentencing procedures. Treatment is more cost-effective than confinement. It carries both short and long-term benefits for individuals and communities alike. In some cases of violent crimes and serious financial crimes that affect millions of people, severe punishments with high sentences are necessary. But they are not necessary, and are in fact counterproductive, when given to addicts, defendants involved in selling drugs to feed habits, or those paid minimally to transport or aid the high-level dealers. These folks need treatment, jobs and alternatives - not long-term incarceration.

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