How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration


September 15, 2015 by socialaction2014

Mandatory minimums were supposed to help crack down on drug crime in the 80s. But they’ve had huge unintended consequences.

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statutes dictate specific prison terms for certain crimes deemed
uniquely harmful to society. By design, they bar judges from using
discretion during sentencing. Minimums have been around since America’s
founding, but the most consequential ones were erected in the 1980s in
response to the ravages of the inner-city drug trade. The idea was to
establish uniformly stringent punishments to both deter drug offenses
and lock away kingpins. And a central feature of this framework was the
now infamous minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder
cocaine violations.

The US government created a 100-to-1 minimum sentence disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

the US, crack consumption is tied to income, and income is tied to
race. So this arbitrary sentencing disparity has forced courts to punish
black Americans much more harshly than white Americans for basically
the exact same crime. As a result, tens of thousands of young men, most
of whom are black, have been snatched up by law enforcement on low-level
drug offenses and thrown into prison for mandatory terms that make a
mockery of any sense of proportionately. This situation is so absurd
that its sparked the formation of a reform coalition composed of the
most unlikely of allies, including the Koch brothers, the NAACP, Newt
Gingrich, the ACLU, Senator Rand Paul, and the Obama White House.

policymakers have started injecting some common sense into the minimums
regime. A landmark 2005 Supreme Court decision afforded federal judges
some leeway to stray from dictated terms. A major federal criminal
justice package passed in 2010 eliminated minimums for simple crack
possession and dramatically ratcheted back the crack-powder sentencing
disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And President Obama recently wielded
the executive commutation power to pardon 46 people serving excessive
mandatory terms for nonviolent drug offenses. But there’s a still a long
way for the US to go to make sentencing fair.


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