U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has just announced that he’s eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. As Attorney General Holder explains, mandatory minimum sentences for low level, nonviolent drug offenders “have had a destabilizing effect on …particular communities, largely poor and of color. And applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive.”
He also noted that federal, state, and local incarceration levels have become both “ineffective and unsustainable.” As a result of the inequities in enforcement of mandatory minimums, combined with the significant prison overcrowding, he announced that the federal government will be changing its mandatory minimum policy.
Issues With Mandatory Minimums For Drug Crimes
Starting in 1971 the federal government has followed a “tough on crime” approach. This approach included mandatory minimum drug sentences for many offenders convicted of drug crimes – – including nonviolent offenders. Over the years, critics have rallied against mandatory minimum sentences for these individuals, pointing out that these policies have been enforced inequitably, have led to excessive sentences, and have cost the U.S. billions of dollars.
One of the most glaring issues has been the government’s enforcement of “mandatory minimums” differently based on an individual’s race. For example, studies have shown that although illegal drug use is the same amongst different races, African-Americans and Latinos make up a disproportionately large percent of those convicted under mandatory minimums. Even in Massachusetts, African-American and Hispanics are jailed at a rate of 8-to-1 and 6-to-1, respectively, compared to whites.
Furthermore, critics argue that the punishment for non-violent drug crimes has been excessive. Statistics provide that around half of the inmates in federal prisons are locked up for drug offenses. A majority of these people have been sentenced based on mandatory minimum guidelines, including a large number of individuals charged with low level, non-violent drug possession offenses.
“Smart on Crime” Proposal
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) “Smart on Crime” proposal seeks to reform “tough on crime” approach followed for over the last forty years. The “war on crime” initiatives have led to mass incarceration – the highest in U.S. history – and cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The DOJ hopes to end the use of mandatory minimum sentences that have been inequitably enforced and have lead to “excessive and draconian” sentences in non-violent drug cases.
As a result of this measure, the Department of Justice will instruct prosecutors to avoid federal sentencing rules by not recording drug amounts found on non-violent offenders.
Alternatives To Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Under the new policy, the federal government is looking to implement alternatives to the mandatory minimum sentences. One of these alternatives is an increased use of drug courts, similar to the drug program used in the Massachusetts’ judicial system. Drug courts serve as an alternative sentencing option for many low level offenders – not only those convicted of drug possession, but also those facing driving under the influence charges.
Participants must agree to undergo intensive therapy, random drug testing and attend weekly hearings before a judge to evaluate their progress. The goal of drug courts is to give addicts help so they can get a job and live independently. The hope is that this will reduce recidivism and protect the public.
Defendants who enter drug courts must make a commitment. Drug courts offer the chance at reduce probation but if the participant violates the terms, he may receive increased probation supervision or incarceration.
While this program doesn’t work for everyone, it is an effective option.
Hopefully the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences will be the beginning of a more rational and equitable approach to criminal justice.