One Absurd Drug Law Is Keeping Thousands of People in Prison

Mandatory minimum sentences in the justice system essentially take the gavel away from the judge in certain situations. Instead of a judge being able to give a less harsh prison sentence to someone with extenuating circumstances, the judge is forced to give a minimum sentence for anyone who commits a certain crime. This nuance of criminal law is partially choked, and might lead to a first time marijuana possession offense that can come with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, for example, if you have enough marijuana to make authorities think you were going to sell some.

That is really where this all started: marijuana. Congress passed the Boggs Act in 1951, which made it so that possession of marijuana was punishable with at least two years in prison and a fine as high as $20,000. That law was later repealed, and it was replaced with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set much of the current standards for drug offenses. As we have noted before, many would argue these laws had racist origins.

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In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller began planning to leave his position to become Vice President of the United States, but he did one last thing in New York that had a permanent effect on the country. He created what became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were extremely harsh laws made to crack down on drug use and trafficking. Rockefeller's laws demanded drug users and dealers, whether they are dealing cocaine or marijuana, be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison. It was unexpected that he would do such a thing, considering he had previously advocated for simply treating addicts instead of jailing them, but President Nixon's launch of the war on drugs caused him to change his plans. President Ronald Reagan would later use the Rockefeller Drug Laws as a model for his own policies when he signed the previously mentioned Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

What's important now is not necessarily how we got here but rather what the effect has been and what we're doing about it. You might be surprised by some of the politicians who have spoken in favor of reforming the mandatory minimum practices. Just on July 16, while President Obama has been regularly speaking about reforming the criminal justice system, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said some people are in prison who "really don't need to be there." He expressed support for the SAFE Act, a bill that would rein in many mandatory minimum sentences related to drug offenses. Earlier this year, presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., helped revive the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would make it so judges can give sentences lower than the current mandatory minimum in certain cases. Both of these bills also have significant report from Democrats in Congress. Another bill with similar intentions, the Smart Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support in Congress.

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Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) point out that studies have shown long mandatory minimums do not reduce crime and that states that have cut back mandatory minimums have actually seen a decline in crime. Mandatory minimums also cost the country a lot of money, as it can cost over $20,000 per year to keep one person in prison. Kids with parents in prison are also significantly more likely to end up in prison themselves, and people from minority communities are disproportionately affected by these laws. There are few who offer a reason to support mandatory minimum sentences, besides a superficial belief in keeping criminals of any kind behind bars for as long as possible. Even judges have come out in favor of changing these laws.

Like many issues with the criminal justice system in the U.S., mandatory minimum sentences have been found to be antiquated, ineffectual, morally reprehensible and costly. While there is certainly a balance to be reached so laws can be enforced and crime can be minimized, forcing judges across the nation to hand out the same cookie cutter sentences for an array of diverse cases does not appear to work for anyone involved.