Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Here is a student paper on the mandatory minimum sentencing law.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences Law
Second Medium Length Paper

            The United States started “War on Drugs” in 1971 to fight against distribution, consumption and use of harmful drugs. Richard Nixon was the first president to hold fame in the “War on Drugs”. Nixon had shown promise on this war and created the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 for the narcotic and marijuana outbreak in the United States and elsewhere. Later presidents, such as President Clinton in 1996, used this idea, enforced many anti-drug laws, and committed millions of dollars to this war. (Suddath, 2009). One interesting law used in this war was hastily put together without any contributing outside sources, and this was the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing law.
            in 1986 the Congress passed a law that put a mandatory minimum sentencing for cocaine users. This federal mandatory drug sentence depended on three different things, “the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture, and the number of prior convictions” (DPA, 2010). The judge could not look at the person’s reason for using the drug, what role they had in their possession, and whether the person was likely to use the drug again. This prevented wealthy drug traffickers from bribing the judges to reduce their sentences or dismiss the cases against them.
One drug that became a prominent scare and a target of the mandatory sentencing law was cocaine. Through history cocaine was used for almost everything, but in its refined form it has caused addiction, and its use harmfully affected many addicted users. In the 1960s there was a rise in cocaine which led the Congress to classify it as a drug with a high level of potential abuse (ONDCP, 2009).
By the late 1980s, a new and more refined type of cocaine was becoming popular, and it appeared to public health officials and police that this new form was especially potent, much cheaper, and far more addictive than other forms of cocaine, and this cocaine was called crack. Everyone who had five grams of crack cocaine would serve five years imprisoned. This leaves a 100-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. If a person had powder cocaine they would need 500 grams of cocaine to be imprisoned for five years. Was crack really that much worse?  Was the harsher sentence for crack related to its lower cost and its relative abundance in poorer neighborhoods, communities where users and dealers were more likely to have African or Hispanic heritage?
If someone is caught with crack, their only hope for escape from the five plus year mandatory sentencing is to snitch on other users. Only the upper level drug dealers would be able to use this escape to their advantage, since they are the ones who deal the drugs to dependent users, and know who the users are. The users that are on the lower distribution level didn’t have the information to give, and so this loophole in the mandatory minimum sentencing law resulted in the perverse situation of the least harmful users spending more time in jail than the more harmful dealers.
            The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget has increased from $22 million in 1986 to over $3 billion in 1997 (Huffman, 2006). This law has resulted in prison overcrowding, racial injustice and increases in imprisoned women. Judges generally hate the law, and even some prosecutors will admit that the sentencing guidelines under the mandatory minimum sentencing regime can be unfair. Even with these issues that make many question the law, it does seem that harsh mandatory penalties may help lower drug use.  The dealers and users know what to expect if they are caught possessing a certain amount of illegal drugs, and this knowledge will deter them. Some experts claim this law has stabilized the crack cocaine epidemic and helped contribute to the historic decline violent crime rates that was experienced between 1996 and 2000. (Hutchinson, 2008)


DPA. (2010). Mandatory Minimum Sentences. Retrieved 2011, from Drug Policy Alliance: http://www.drugpolicy.org/drugwar/mandatorymin/
Huffman, A. A. (2006). Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses. Retrieved 2011, from California State Conference: http://www.ca-naacp.org/advocacy-drug-offenses-mandatory-minimum.php
Hutchinson, A. (2008). Have mandatory minimum sentences been an effective tool in the war on drugs? Retrieved 2011, from ProCon.org: http://aclu.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000731
ONDCP. (2009). Cocaine Facts & Figures. Retrieved 2011, from Office of National Drug Control Policy: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/drugfact/cocaine/cocaine_ff.html
Suddath, C. (2009). The War on Drugs. Retrieved 2011, from Time: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1887488,00.html

The paper above was written as a descriptive paper in a journalistic style.  The same student wrote an editorial on this same subject, included next:

The Anti-Drug Act of 1986

            The Anti-Drug Act of 1986 provided a mandatory minimum for drugs. This removed a judge’s discretion, and gave every drug trafficker or user the same sentence. The drug that was mostly targeted at the time was cocaine. A person that possessed five grams of crack cocaine would receive a five year sentence, and a person with 500 grams of power cocaine would get the same sentence. This created a 100-to-1 disparity, and affected a significant group of people. The most targeted were minorities in poverty, and this law affected first time users the same as habitual or repeat users.

            This law has caused more damage than good to many victims. There is a significant increase in prisons, and inequality. Drug arrests have tripled to 1.8 million arrests in 2005. This is a high increase in the prison population of non-violent drug users who are not close to any drug lords, but it the people who wrote these mandatory sentences were writing the laws to help keep drug lords in jail for longer sentences. Six in ten persons in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity (Mauer & King, September 2007). Not only are the common users in jail but also was there an inequality within the prison system. Before the mandatory minimums were effective the “average Federal offense for African Americans was 11% higher than Caucasians. After the mandatory drug sentencing laws, the average drug offense sentence for African Americans was 49% higher than Caucasians” (Huffmann, 2006)

            There hasn’t been an improvement with the mandatory minimums. This law just brought more African American males into imprisonment for unreasonable amount of time. The only improvement was in the amount of money the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget received, which was $3.9 billion in 1997, way up from $220 million in 1986. There has been more money contributed to enforcement and prisons. With 1.8 million imprisoned non- violent drug users it costs about $9 billion each year (Huffmann, 2006).

            There are many people against this outlandish law like the group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Numerous studies done on sentencing have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a standard sentence given to every person like in a one size fits all law such as this one. There is no proof that this law deters drug crimes, but rather, it seems this law only increases the number of arrests being made. Taking a drug user off the streets into prison only gives more room for other potential users, which brings those who suffer from substance abuse or addiction to an unending harsh cycle involving the criminal justice system.


Carrillo, S. (2000). Should Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws Be Repealed? Retrieved 2011, from Speakout.com: http://speakout.com/activism/issue_briefs/1127b-1.html
Huffmann, A. A. (2006). Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses. Retrieved 2011, from California State Conference: http://www.ca-naacp.org/advocacy-drug-offenses-mandatory-minimum.php
Mauer, M., & King, R. S. (September 2007). A 25- Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society. The Sentencing Project, 2- 6.
Vagins, D. J. (2006). ACLU Releases Crack Cocaine Report, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Deepened Racial Inequity in Sentencing. Retrieved 2011, from American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org/drug-law-reform/aclu-releases-crack-cocaine-report-anti-drug-abuse-act-1986-deepened-racial-inequity

No comments: