Mandatory Minimums: Why They Don't Work

It has been more than two years since United States Attorney General Eric Holder decried mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders as "draconian." He said that the federal government would no longer be handling such cases, and instead, would leave the prosecution to the states.

However, mandatory minimum sentencing for drugs and other crimes at the state level has led to prison overcrowding--particularly in states like Oklahoma, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation: third highest for men, highest for women, and significantly higher than average for drug offenders.

Oklahoma has taken some measures to try to reduce prison overcrowding due to mandatory minimum sentencing. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would allow judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions. The law allows judge's discretion in sentencing of non-violent offenses, and does not apply to mandatory minimums associated under the following conditions:

Easing of mandatory minimums should come as good news to Oklahomans. Indeed, citizens around the nation recognize that a one-size-fits-all solution to being "tough on crime," is not in the best interest of justice. 

A recent Washington Post article explored just "how much Americans hate mandatory minimum sentences." The article cited a 2014 Public Religion Research Institute survey that found that more than three-quarters of Americans think that mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes should be eliminated, giving judges the freedom to assign sentences that align with the specific details of each unique case.

The survey broke the results down by different demographics, and while some groups opposed mandatory minimums more vehemently than others, all groups had a majority against mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes. By political affiliation, democrats opposed mandatory minimums the most strongly (83 percent opposed), while republicans had the least opposition to mandatory minimums (66 percent opposed).

The survey found that both non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks opposed mandatory minimums at the same rate: 76 percent of both groups are in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums. (The survey indicates that there were not enough Hispanic-Americans surveyed to determine a response from that demographic.)

It is interesting that so many political factions think that the "tough-on-crime" approach is what Americans want, when the statistics indicate that what we really want is true justice. Certainly, the population is in favor of public safety. We understand that law and order is necessary, but we also believe that the punishment should fit the crime. The war on drugs has failed dismally. Mandatory minimums have not eased drug abuse and drug crimes; they have only flooded our jails and prisons with inmates who would be better served by treatment and rehabilitation than incarceration. 

Image Credit: Charles Duggar

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