A Welcome New Trend in Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Recently, a new trend in mandatory minimum sentences has emerged: more and more people, especially elected leaders, are supporting the reform of these laws that can do more harm than good.

The debate and history of mandatory minimum sentences has been a long and ongoing process inciting strong responses from both sides. 

People who support mandatory minimum sentences consider them necessary and effective modes of punishment that further create a sense of uniformity. 

In contrast, those who oppose these mandatory minimums view them as not only ineffective, but as actively harmful, as they encourage disparities and injustice in various areas, such as race. 

What Exactly Are Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

Mandatory minimum sentences are set laws that lead a judge to determine a general and harsh punishment for an individual convicted of a crime while not considering various other factors in the case. 

Mandatory minimum sentences are characteristically very inflexible, yet they are immensely popular with Congress and state lawmakers because they are considered a “quick fix” to many crimes. These sentences were created with the belief that harsher sentences will ultimately result in less crime and abuse. 

Not Such a “Quick Fix”

But rather than the promised positive effects, many problems arose with the establishment of these sentences. 

One of the major issues includes a 700% increase in the US prison population since 1970. A second issue the crazily high costs to taxpayers--nearly $70 billion per year--that come with putting more people in jail. And a third issue is that US recidivism rates remain around 60% or higher.

In other words, we're spending a lot of money to imprison lots of people without actually reducing crime or creating safe, thriving communities.

Not surprisingly, perception of mandatory minimum sentences is experiencing a sharp turn as more people are finding that these sentences are bringing more harm than to communities and budgets. 

New Bill a Baby Step Toward Reform

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate called The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, S.619 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) and Rand Paul (R-Ky). 

This new bill, if passed, would permit judges to sentence federal offenders with much more flexibility; if a mandatory minimum sentence doesn't make sense for the crime committed by a certain individual, the judge will be able to determine a more proper and individualized sentence. 

Like the general debate regarding mandatory minimums, there is support and opposition for this bill. Overall, support for this bill is encouraged, but it is important to keep in mind that this bill is in no way a complete solution to the issue of mandatory minimum sentences. This bill is merely a small baby step towards improving the current state of mandatory minimums. 

Thus, even if this bill passes, efforts towards improving the problem of mandatory minimum sentences should not cease. Nevertheless, careful consideration for this bill is something that everyone needs to participate in because these mandatory minimum sentences ultimately affect the general public as a whole.

Time to Get Smart on Crime

In addition to the efforts of Leahy and Paul, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented his “Smart on Crime” initiative on August 12, 2013 at the American Bar Association’s (ABA) annual meeting in San Francisco. 

This initiative calls for major transformations in current drug sentencing laws. These transformations include more appropriate responses for low-level or nonviolent offenses, such as drug treatment and community service programs, rather than mandatory time in prison with people convicted of much more severe crimes. 

Holder emphasized that “by reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation, while making our expenditures smarter and more productive”. 

The reform plans that Holder presented at the ABA meeting cover many points that the criminal justice community has been trying to implement throughout the years. 

For example, Holder’s new initiative addresses the issue of racial discrimination. Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice reform at the Open Society Foundations, even claims “if this shift takes place, President Obama and Attorney General Holder will have etched a lasting legacy that will tackle racial disparities, shrink mass incarceration, reduce costs, and, most importantly, bring justice to a deeply flawed criminal justice system.” 

Get Informed About Mandatory Minimums

Hype around Holder’s speech and the increasing efforts for reform make it quite apparent that mandatory minimum sentences are an issue that is of great concern. And as stated before, the effects of mandatory minimum sentences rest upon the whole community.

Bottom line: You owe it to yourself to take the time to thoroughly evaluate the impact of and reform to mandatory minimums.

Keep up with how mandatory minimums impact your community

Guest Author: 
Lauren Kim

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