What's the deal with mandatory minimums?

Posted by Blake Wright on April 28, 2014 at 11:28 AM


Federal Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York wrote in a statement of reasons this past December that he struggled with his position in the judiciary for he felt that, “although his vocation is the administration of justice, his function frequently is the infliction of injustice.” [1] Judge Gleeson, and many others, are so restricted by the government’s policy of mandatory minimums that they feel that their efficacy within their positions has been nearly nullified. There are currently thousands of prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, most commonly drug possession or trafficking. Many of these prisoners have children who will never know or see their parents again. Many of these prisoners are addicts who, with proper rehabilitation and treatment, could likely be successfully reintegrated into society. Because of mandatory minimums, judges cannot exercise the discretion to make these important but difficult choices. [1]

What are mandatory minimums?

Mandatory minimum sentences are predetermined periods of incarceration for certain crimes, which prevent judicial discretion. Current sentencing restrictions leave judges little to no room in which to actually rule on a case. Mandatory minimums are inflexible, and cannot be adjusted on a case-by-case basis. This means, for example, that if the charge is a minor non-violent infraction, and the defendant is a single-parent, the judge cannot take this into consideration and deliver a sentence lower than the minimum. Juries are often not informed of the required minimum sentence if a defendant is convicted prior to delivering their decision. [2] While implemented with good intentions as part of “tough on crime” policies, they have been one of the primary causes of mass incarceration in the past few decades.  [3]

What effect would repealing mandatory minimums have?

This policy will decrease the number of people who are currently incarcerated immensely. Approximately one-quarter of people in U.S. prisons or jails were incarcerated because of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country. With an estimated 6.8 million Americans struggling with drug abuse or dependence, this pattern does not see an end. [4] Less people in prisons will reduce the budgetary needs of the prison system. Additionally, those who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, such as drug possession, often have very high recidivism rates. Mandating that they receive addiction treatment rather than incarcerating them without treatment is more cost-effective and will allow for better and quicker reintegration into society. Additionally, if they are a single parent, preventing them from ever being incarcerated reduces the burden on the child or the other parent. Children of incarcerated parents are much more likely to also become incarcerated, and so this can be seen as a preventative measure. In addition, there is racial disparity in drug arrests and subsequent incarceration that would be stopped if mandatory minimums were eliminated. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months.) [5] This policy would have enormous effects on lowering the incarceration rate and subsequently reducing the number of incarcerated persons.  Further, those who would have been incarcerated as a result of these minimums but are not once they are repealed, will have better chances of being an active and productive member of the workforce.

Is any legislation repealing mandatory minimums likely to gain any momentum in Congress?

Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have all publicly questioned the practice of  mandatory minimum sentences, including recidivism enhancements, that began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. [1]  At the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, the criminal justice reform panel advocated changing, if not repealing minimums. This was advocated as a money saving solution [6]. The Obama administration too has made public statements on the importance of repealing or at least loosening mandatory minimums. Attorney General Eric holder recently said in reference to minimums “far too many Americans serving too much time in too many prisons - and beyond the point of serving any good law enforcement reason.” [7] It is often difficult to reform incarceration practices, especially sentencing guidelines, because no politician wants to be seen as being “soft on crime,” but there seems to be bipartisan support for reform, if not repeals. No legislation has been introduced at this time to address the issue on the federal, but some states have begun to alter these laws more locally.

How does the repealing of mandatory minimums affect you? How does this affect millennials?

Overcrowding of prisons is an enormous problem and takes an enormous portion of both state and federal budgets. The Federal Bureau of Prisons Budget for 2014 was $6,831 million for Salaries and Expenses and $105.2 million for Buildings and Facilities. [8] This is money that could be redirected into other government programs, from education to Social Security, Medicare to infrastructure. Repealing mandatory minimums would greatly reduce the number of people currently incarcerated. Incarceration reform is a crucial issue for the Millennial generation, and this is a place to start with bipartisan support.


[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-the-sledgehammer-justice-of-mandatory-minimum-sentences/2013/12/25/959e39de-6cb2-11e3-a523-fe73f0ff6b8d_story.html

[2] Kristen K. Sauer (Jun., 1995). Informed Conviction: Instructing the Jury about Mandatory Sentencing Consequences95 (5). Columbia Law Review. pp. 1232–1272

[3] http://famm.org/mandatory-sentencing/mandatory-minimums/

[4] http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/08_01_REP_DrugTx_AC- PS.pdf#sthash.lOY2Qurs.dpuf

[5] http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

[6] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/cpac-panels-pack-more-punch-than-speeches/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cpac-panels-pack-more-punch-than-speeches

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tony-newman/obama-holder-criminal-justice-reform_b_4775811.html

[8] http://www.justice.gov/jmd/2014summary/pdf/bop.pdf