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Mandatory Minimums Hurt More Than They Help

Tagged under: Research USA Prison Court System Criminal Justice
By Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi on October 18, 2015 - Based on this John Oliver segment.

Tomorrow, October 19, 2015, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on SB2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Among other things, it would reduce a number of mandatory minimums and make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (which reduced mandatory minimums of crack to match those of cocaine) retroactice. We truly hope that this bipartisan bill makes it to the Senate floor and is allowed to pass in a full Congressional vote. Whether Republican or Democrat, lawmakers have finally realized that mandatory minimums do far more harm than good.

An image of the bipartisan group behind the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

On July 13, 2015, President Obama gave 46 non-violent drug offenders clemency, the most in 1 day since the 1960s. This gave 4 dozen people a second chance at life after making a mistake that didn't hurt anyone else earlier in life. This brought President Obama's commutations total to 89.

President Obama during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institute, the first sitting President to visit a prison.

Presidential clemency often creates a bit of controversy. Examples include President George W. Bush granting Scooter Libby clemency after being found guilty of 4 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements or President Clinton pardoning financier Marc Rich who fled during his prosecution for owing $48 million in taxes and 51 counts of tax fraud. An important difference - and a shared characteristic of all the commutations handed down by President Obama - is that the non-violent, non-connected individuals were all drug offenderes that were subject to mandatory sentence minimums.

An image of President Richard Nixon's pardon, issued by then President Gerald Ford.

Mandatory minimums require judges to sentence people to a minimum number of years, regardless of context. Most of the minimums were passed during the tough-on-crime years of the 80s and 90s, and are part of the reason why prison populations have exploded. If you remember from our previous post, once these tough-on-crime laws began being passed through the efforts of lobbying groups like ALEC, the number of prisoners have quadrupled, leaving us with nearly 1 in 100 American adults behind bars. This is far, far more than any other civilized nation. More, even, than China or Russia. You can imagine how much that costs.

A pie chart showing US Drug Control Spending, or the War on Drugs.

Mandatory minimums can leave people in jail, sentenced to life without parole, for things like introducing two dealers to one another. President Regan and the first President Bush are thought of as the architects as the War on Drugs (a term President Nixon first used) as it exists today, and they are responsible for most of those mandatory minimums. In fact, President George H. W. Bush famously gave a speech on TV using crack cocaine that was seized by the DEA right outside of the White House in a planned bust just so President Bush could say on TV that officers arrested the dealer in the park across the street.

An image of the first President Bush holding a bag of crack, purchased in a controlled bust orchestrated by the White House for the purposes of this speech.

President Clinton continued the policies of Presidents Regan and Bush, leaving us with 31 states plus DC that had mandatory minimums for drug offenses by February of 1994. Nothing ever brought Republicans and Democrats together faster than mandatory minimums during those years. These days, however, it seems the tide has turned. Lawmakers have gotten together to try to curb these minimums.

Even the authors of mandatory minimum laws have come out against them. Kevin Ring, a congressional staffer who pushed most of the minimums in the 90s, went to prison for fraud. He ended up speaking out against minimums on behalf of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He pointed out that even jaywalking can theoretically leave someone in jail for life. Not only did these sentences not acheive their anticipated goals, they ruined people's lives instead.

Weldon Angelos, a non-violent first-time offender, sold marijuana to an informant at 24 with a gun in his pocket. He ended up with a 55 year sentence with no parole. He won't get out until he is 79 just for selling something that is now legal in Colorado and Washington. His 5 and 7 year old sons have been affected more than anyone else. They had to grow up without a father. Even the Judge, Paul Cassell, has come out and commented against how harsh the sentence was. Judge Cassell pointed out that an airline hijacker would have only gotten 24 years, a terrorist 20, and a child rapist 11. Judge Cassell HAD to give Weldon a 55 year sentence. That's right – someone would have to rape a child while committing terrorism through hijacking a plane.

An image of Weldon Angelos with his wife and child.

Mandatory minimums were set up to force defendants charged with non-violent drug crimes to simply take plea bargains. Do you want to risk spending the rest of your years in jail or just plead guilty to something you may not have even done so you don't risk losing your life? This question is probably best asked to a particular segment of our reader: according to the US Sentencing Commission, an empirical analysis of mandatory minimums found that 74.4% of drug offenders sentenced under these minimums in fiscal year 2010 were Black or Hispanic.

At least federally, these minimums are being reduced. Furthermore, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, 35 states passed at least 85 bills to change some part of the way in which they sentence defendants. Most of those measures, however, are not retroactive. That means tens of thousands of people are in jail for things that would be far shorter if they were committed just months later.

A bipartisan committee for sentencing reform.

If we fix these problems, lives can change. Jason Hernandez, one of the people who received a commutation from President Obama, simply broke down in tears when reading the order releasing them. How can you not watch him and understand that he will be one of the most productive members of society?

Second chances are what this nation was built on. There need to be many more commutations. But most importantly, our state and federal legislators need to make the move. Almost everyone has agreed that mandatory minimums didn't work. It is in the best interest of the nation that these people be freed or have their records cleared.

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