The Sentencing Project Releases New Fact Sheet Illustrating Negative Impact of Mandatory Minimums

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By Julie McCaffrey

WASHINGTON, DC – The Sentencing Project released a new fact sheet last week— “How Mandatory Minimums Perpetuate Mass Incarceration and What to Do about It” —explaining how eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing laws will lead to a more equitable criminal justice system.

According to the fact sheet, “mandatory minimums are legal provisions in each state and the federal government that require a specific minimum prison term for certain crimes, regardless of individual circumstances.”

Mandatory minimums were used as a way to pacify the public after crime rose in the 1980s and 1990s, which sparked public concern, and were enacted in all 50 states in 1995, causing judges’ sentencing to be restricted by implementing minimum imprisonment terms, the report stated.

Some of the policies enacted include mandatory prison sentences for drug-related crimes, longer mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes and repeat offenders, three strikes laws that lengthen sentences, and laws requiring people to serve typically 85 percent of their sentence before eligibility for release, The Sentencing Project study noted.

Many criminal legal experts, the Report suggests, believe mandatory minimums are overly harsh punishments, and lists several issues with mandatory minimums, including power being transferred from the judges to the prosecutors in the criminal justice system.

The Sentencing Project study said this is because prosecutors can decide to charge individuals with a mandatory minimum-eligible crime, or make the decision to apply the minimum to an eligible charge. While the laws claim to target violent crime, they are used in far more drug and nonviolent convictions than violent convictions.

The fact sheet states mandatory minimums also allow for racial and ethnic disparities to flourish.

A 2019 study, the report cites, found 91 percent of people arrested for crimes that carry mandatory minimums in New York were people of color, while only seven percent were white, and another study found that Black people were the racial group most likely to be sentenced under a mandatory minimum, despite equal drug use rates among racial groups.

Mandatory minimums have also contributed to prison overcrowding, the report notes, adding this exacerbates already existing prison issues, such as unsanitary and dangerous living conditions.

The fact sheet states that “overcrowded prisons create resource deficits for rehabilitation, mental and behavioral health needs, and education needs. Eliminating mandatory minimums would allow the reallocation of resources that could instead go toward funding these services and programs, which have known community safety benefits.”

There have been several recent reforms to help mitigate the negative impacts of mandatory minimums, states The Sentencing Project, writing almost half of all states have reduced or eliminated some mandatory minimums related to drug offenses.

The report adds that three states—Colorado, Iowa and Washington—have prohibited mandatory minimums for juveniles that are transferred to the adult justice system, and Mississippi mandated that nonviolent offenses committed by someone without a criminal history could be reviewed after serving 25 percent of their sentence, instead of 85 percent.

The Sentencing Project acknowledges the encouraging changes to mandatory minimum laws, but still recognizes that these reforms have been sporadic and insufficient. They claim that reforms should shift and focus on a new system of sentencing that emphasizes individual assessments, including regular reviews and earned release.

There are still some states that have recently strengthened mandatory minimums, said the report, stating Tennessee, for example, passed a new law that requires individuals to serve 100 percent of their sentence upon conviction for eight separate felonies.

The Sentencing Project did highlight a recently successful campaign in California for two new mandatory minimums, implemented after a highly-reported sexual assault, committed by Stanford University student Brock Turner. The two new laws enacted expanded the definition of rape and prohibited the use of probation in sexual crimes because the sexual assault did not neatly fall into the state definition of rape.

The report added Congress has introduced the HALT Fentanyl Act, which classifies fentanyl-related drugs as Schedule I drugs. This causes a mandatory minimum to be triggered at sentencing and lowers the threshold for conviction.

This was aimed to combat the current opioid crisis in America, but will eventually overwhelmingly target communities of color, according to The Sentencing Project.

The report concludes that “35 years of mandatory minimum sentencing shows that long and harsh sentences are not effective for community safety,” and urges prosecutors to stop charging crimes that trigger mandatory minimums, calling for lawmakers to support approaches that include prevention and early intervention.

About The Author

Julie is a third year at UC Davis majoring in Communications and Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. She hopes to advocate for women's reproductive rights and make the justice system fairer for sexual assault survivors.

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