Mandatory sentencing laws are ineffective, costly, unjust
May 17, 2005
Here we go again.
Members of Congress are on the verge of passing more mandatory minimum sentencing laws. After 20 years of failure on this issue, you would think they had learned their lesson.
Mandatory minimum sentences force judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of mitigating factors. These sentences have contributed to prison overcrowding, cost taxpayers millions, failed to deter crimes and sent record numbers of women and people of color to prison.
The latest congressional misadventure into mandatory minimum sentencing concerns an anti-gang bill passed recently by the House of Representatives. Called "The Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act," it would federalize some crimes associated with gang activity, narrow the definition of a gang and apply mandatory minimum sentencing under federal law for some crimes committed by gang members and juvenile offenders.
It would also allow for the incarceration of a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in the coming years.
Mandatory minimums have a hideous track record.
In the 1980s, during the early days of the so-called war on drugs, the federal government, followed by many states, passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws to address the growing drug problem. As a result, thousands of nonviolent low-level drug offenders -- most of them black or Latino -- received long prison sentences for possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. The prison population exploded.
Sadly, many of these offenders would have been better served with treatment rather than jail time.
More than 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated in the United States, and the majority of them (more than 61 percent) are black or Latino, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 1986, the year Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the average federal drug sentence for African-Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Four years later, the sentence disparity had grown to 49 percent.
Despite this massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses over the last 20 years, illegal drugs are still readily available for purchase. Even the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Department of Justice have both concluded that mandatory sentencing fails to deter crime.
Just like the anti-drug mandatory minimum laws, the new anti-gang proposal addresses only the supply side of the gang problem. It does not deal with the demand. It fails to confront the root causes of why many individuals join gangs in the first place, such as unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and poverty.
Lawmakers should certainly take gang violence and gang activity seriously. But mandatory minimum sentencing laws are not the ticket, as the track record already shows