In a notable instance of bipartisanship, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) co-sponsored a bill last session seeking to address concerns about the harmful effects of mandatory minimum sentencing. If it had passed, the Justice Safety Valve Act would have allowed judges to deviate from mandatory minimums in instances where they deemed a lesser sentence to be warranted.
Mandatory minimums imposed by legislatures prescribe specific sentences for certain offenses, particularly those involving drugs. This policy was intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily lengthy prison sentences while also failing to deter crime.
A government ought not deprive a citizen of his liberty except if he poses a concrete risk to the security of others. Many sentenced under mandatory minimums are nonviolent offenders who would have received lighter sentences or even probation but were required to be incarcerated. Weldon Angelos, a man with no prior convictions, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying a firearm. The U.S. District Court judge who was bound by the mandatory minimum when sentencing Angelos called the punishment “unjust, cruel and even irrational.”
In 2010, 14.5 percent of all federal sentences were the result of mandatory minimums. This statistic demands we re-examine the practice of incarcerating innumerable Americans without considering the unique aspects of their particular transgressions. The discretion we sought to eliminate because it resulted in sentencing imbalances still exists. It just has been transferred from judges to prosecutors. Prosecutors, who may have political incentives to accumulate convictions, have the nearly unrestricted liberty to determine whether to charge a defendant and also to choose the severity of the charges to levy.
Mandatory sentencing has not been demonstrated to reduce crime. Among the assumptions behind enacting these laws was the belief that before committing a crime, an individual would act rationally and consider the severe sentence that might result. However, the certainty of punishment is a more effective deterrent than its severity. Also, sentencing low-level drug distributors to long prison terms does not reduce crime because their role will be quickly filled by others.
Mandatory minimums for drug offenses are also condemned for their tendency to create a “cliff” where a slight increase in the quantity possessed of a substance may result in a much lengthier sentence. For example, under one state’s statute, possession of 5.01 grams of “crack” cocaine results in a mandatory five-year sentence; however, possession of 5.0 grams of “crack” carries a relatively short sentence.
Acknowledging the high recidivism rate in the United States along with the relative frequency of violence in prisons, we should avoid incarcerating offenders who are not a risk to public safety. Between 2011 and 2012, 4 percent of prison inmates were the victims of unwanted sexual contact. Trials as taxing as physical and sexual assault combined with often not receiving educational or vocational training while incarcerated makes rejoining communities and families quite difficult. More than three-quarters of released inmates are arrested again within five years.
A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 63 percent of Americans support replacing mandatory prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders with alternatives such as treatment for addiction. In 2001, only 47 percent of Americans supported such a shift. Although altering policy on the basis of shifting public opinion alone is hardly advisable, this change in opinion likely demonstrates that the public has become aware of the compelling reasons to discontinue the practice.
Although the executive branch has acted to mitigate the pernicious consequences of mandatory sentencing, Congress and state legislatures should put forward bills along the lines of the Justice Safety Valve Act to reinstate judicial discretion. It is time to end the practice of confining countless Americans to prison for often disproportionately lengthy sentences without considering the unique aspects of their cases.
Erich Prince, a former Duke University student, is an undergraduate studying political philosophy at Yale University.