Mandatory Minimums: Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Two decades ago it was not uncommon for Americans to believe they had one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. Unfortunately, with the enormous drug trade coming to a pinnacle and the effects of drugs on more and more suburban youth, the government felt a desperate measure had to be taken. In the mid-1980?s congress passed a series of strict laws to keep illegal drugs off the street. What they did not know was how inhumane, cost ineffective and unconstitutional these laws would be. Welcome to the world of mandatory minimums.
Since the Anti Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986, the United States has been using a system of ?mandatory minimum? sentences which is a strict guideline for judges? sentencing decisions. When a person is convicted of a crime in this country, their criminal history is examined and they are given criminal history points according to guidelines set forth by the federal government. Their offense is also assigned a severity rating by another set of guidelines. A judge, when determining that person’s sentence, does not need to use his own discretion, he just looks up the sentence on the chart and off they go to prison. In fact, the judge is not allowed to adjust the sentence on the chart downward, unless that person assists the government in taking other drug offenders off of the streets. This was attributed to a young basketball star by the name of Len Bias. Mr. Bias was the Boston Celtics top pick in the 1986 draft. To celebrate he and a few friends tried smoking crack. Unfortunately, Len had a heart attack and died two days later. This brought shock to Capitol Hill and within 6 months President Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Laws into effect.
Federal mandatory minimums have made a bad situation worse. In large part because the rigid minimums make no distinction among circumstances of cases, today?s sentences for non-violent crimes lack any semblance of balance. If a man helps unload a boat of marijuana just once to pay for his wife?s cancer treatments (an actual case), he is subject to the same minimum sentence as the mastermind of the whole scheme. As a prime example of the irrationality of mandatory minimums, we should consider the sentencing disparity for users of different types of cocaine. Under the drug laws, five grams of crack cocaine draw the same mandatory five-year minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. No scientific or crime-policy reason justifies the enormous 100-to-1 ratio. The gaping difference is particularly troubling because it has racially charged implications: eighty-five percent of federal crack cocaine offenders are African-American, while powder cocaine offenders are more likely to be white or Hispanic.
Another troubling part of mandatory minimum sentencing is its harsh sentencing of first time, low-level non-violent, offenders. Unlike criminals higher up the chain of command, the small-time criminal cannot inform on anyone else and thereby render ?substantial assistance? to the government, which is the only way to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence. One example of such atrocity is the story of two twin brothers fresh from college whose parent?s friend was arrested and merely ?said? he sold the twins cocaine. With no further evidence they received 15 and 19 years respectively. With low level offenders in prison for fifteen years or more for a ?victimless crime,? taxpayers suffer the real consequences. To feed, clothe, house and guard these 65,697 prisoners cost taxpayers $4.14 million per day, or $1.51 billion annually. About 60% of federal inmates, that is 65,697 people, are drug offenders and half of these are first time non-violent offenders. Each year, the portion of tax dollars that goes to support federal prisoners grows faster than any other federal expenditure, including the environment, defense, transportation, social security and most importantly education. In comparison, the average yearly cost for outpatient drug programs is $2,700 to $3,600 and $17,000 to $20,000 per year for residential programs.
As expensive as prison is, it can be a bargain when it comes to keeping violent criminals from preying on the innocent. But loading our prisons with non-violent offenders, often for drug violations, means that there is less room for the more dangerous repeat criminals. The end result is that we have a higher percentage of people in prisons than any other nation on earth-South Africa being a distant second. Although we have passed the dubious milestone of having more than a million Americans in prison, we feel less safe today than ever before.