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Looking Back On Mandatory Minimum Sentences

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In recent years lawmakers have begun rethinking mandatory minimum sentences, and the good they do with regard to deterring crime. Since the 1980’s hundreds of thousands of people have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to stiff penalties, punishments that often times do not match the offense – especially non-violent drug crimes. The vast majority of people charged with a drug related crime plead guilty, lest they be vulnerable to a mandatory minimum sentence.

Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the wake of the nation’s crack cocaine epidemic that swept through inner-city America and trickled into suburbs during the 80’s. Those caught with even small quantity of crack faced over a decade in prison, and even today (over thirty years later) some inmates are serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Reversing the Damage of Mandatory Minimums…

In an attempt to address the draconian drug laws that have done nothing more than bog down the criminal justice system and overcrowd jails and prisons with primarily black and latinos. In an attempt to reverse the damage, a number of senators and congressmen have come forward with a desire to rewrite/repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. On top of this, President Obama has committed the sentences of a number of inmates who were unjustly punished under such laws. Some of the inmates had already served decades of the life sentence they were given.

Unfortunately, doing away with mandatory minimum sentences, while logical, is easier said than done. In fact, there is a group of prosecutors and law enforcement officials who are against altering mandatory minimum sentences, The Washington Post reports. They argue that mandatory minimums are one of the only tools they have at their disposal to use as leverage when going after criminal organizations.

“The leverage, the hammer we have comes in those penalties,” said Federal Prosecutor Steven H. Cook, a member of a group of law enforcement officials who are against altering sentencing laws. “It is the one and only tool we have on the other side.”

While dangling mandatory minimum sentences over the head of people charged with drug crimes may result in uncovering criminal organizations and making bigger arrests, the reality is that such laws primarily affect the average drug addict. People who choose to not plead guilty to nonviolent drug offenses, no matter the severity of the crime, are not at the mercy of the judge if found guilty. Such sentencing laws effectively tie the hands of a judge who would otherwise deal out a lighter sentence or offer the option of substance use disorder treatment.

Those in favor of changing the current laws argue that they disportionately target minorities and require judges to hand out stiff sentences for petty drug offenses, penalties that do not match the crime, according to the article. The laws have resulted in about 97 percent of people charged with drug crimes pleading guilty instead of going to trial.

The Debate on Mandatory Minimums is Bi-Partisan

There is plenty of evidence to support treatment over prison when dealing with low-level nonviolent drug offenders. Changing the laws would save taxpayers billions of dollars every year, keep families together, and give addicts a shot at recovery.

In Washington D.C., legislation that would change mandatory minimum sentences is being debated, the article reports. The legislation is supported by a bipartisan coalition, which includes President Obama, the American Civil Liberties Union, Koch Industries and some police chiefs and district attorneys.

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If you are or a loved one is struggling with drug abuse, please contact Design for Change to begin the journey of recovery.

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