Blog Post

Will the U.S. Senate Finally Reform Harsh Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drugs?

Lindsey Lawson Battaglia

There are few issues that U.S. Senators seem to agree on these days.

Yet, a remarkable bipartisan coalition of senators ranging from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) agree that federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug law violations need reform, and support legislation to accomplish this.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would cut in half the length of many federal drug sentences. Senators on both sides of the aisle now recognize that this is a failed policy that’s cost taxpayers billions of dollars and wasted incalculable human capital. 

Unfortunately, some lawmakers in Congress who have championed mandatory minimum drug sentences for decades are now ignoring a wealth of evidence and labeling supporters of sentencing reform as members of the “leniency industrial complex.” 

It’s time for the “tough on crime” crowd to reconsider  failed drug policies of the past and move forward to a more fiscally responsible future with fewer sentencing disparities.

Currently half of all federal prisoners are drug law violators and roughly half of those were convicted of a drug law violation carrying a ten-year mandatory minimum penalty.  The majority of drug law violators have little or no prior criminal record

Excessive sentences for drug law violations do nothing to deter drug crime or undermine the illicit drug market. Despite spending billions of dollars, the government has failed to effectively dismantle the supply chain.

Instead, for the past few decades, even as crime fell, drug arrest rates doubled and the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons increased almost 100-fold. This outcome wasn’t because of an increase in drug use or sales, but rather a result of increased enforcement taking place chiefly in communities of color.

While African-Americans and Latinos don’t actually use or sell drugs at higher rates, police typically focus drug enforcement activities on street level dealers in urban areas.  The disproportionate enforcement of drug laws on communities of color can be seen in arrest statistics. For example, African Americans are arrested more frequently than whites for crack cocaine offenses, even though whites use crack cocaine at a greater rate than African Americans.

People serving mandatory minimum sentences aren’t the “high-level” offenders that Congress ostensibly intended to target.  In fact, only 10 percent of those convicted of federal drug law violations were classified as being “high-level” offenders.  Drug quantity thresholds trigger mandatory minimum sentences, but the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is not closely related to a person’s role in the crime.  This is why people charged with low-level crimes such as couriers or street level dealers are handed mandatory minimum sentences the majority of the time.

Although federal law provides a person facing a mandatory minimum with limited options to seek a reduction in their sentence, the most culpable defendants are in the best position to provide the government with the necessary information to obtain that relief. In other words, defendants who can identify other people engaged in the illegal drug trade are more likely to win a reduction in their sentence.   People accused of low-level drug law violations often serve longer sentences because they have little or no information to trade for a lower sentence.

Reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violators doesn’t eliminate sentencing options for judges.  Instead, reducing mandatory minimum sentences would restore discretion to judges in whom it is more properly vested.

Decades of research make it clear that reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violations is an appropriate policy revision that would lead to billions of dollars in  savings, reduce the federal prison population by 250,000, and enable progress towards a more just justice system.

Lindsey Lawson Battaglia is policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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