Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

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Mandatory Minimum Sentencing


The mandatory minimum sentencing policy in the United States raises a lot of controversies since it is one of the most significant contributors to the high incarceration rates that continue to plague the nation. There have been concerns about the need for reforms on the mandatory minimum policy to include judicial discretion when dealing with low-level non-violent offenders. The following paper will demonstrate that every case that comes through the criminal justice system is unique and requires a fair trial but the existence of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws frustrates such efforts. The paper proves that there have been many cases whereby the judge has no discretion in the sentence and cannot consider the aggravating or mitigating factors that push the offenders to engage in crime. As such, the mandatory minimum emphasizes pre-determined sentences, and that means that the judges cannot apply their discretional powers. The paper emphasizes the need to relax the mandatory minimum sentences since they result in negative outcomes for low-level non-violent offenders. Overall, the paper demonstrates that the mandatory minimum laws imposed on first-time non-violent offenders are detrimental, unjust, and costly, and they continue to increase the incarceration rates thus worsening the overcrowding in the prison facilities. The paper will go further to illustrate that by allowing the judges to exercise their discretionary powers, it would become possible for them to offer alternative sentences such as the rehabilitation of first-time offenders, which will alleviate the incarceration rates.

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Mass incarceration has been a huge blemish in the United States judicial system, for the simple fact that there exists a mandatory minimum sentence for certain offenses. Initially, the lawmakers hoped that the enactment of the mandatory minimum sentences would portray a tough-on-crime attitude that would stop repeat offenders and deter first-time offenders from engaging in crime (FAMM, 2017). Unfortunately, the policy has not been working as expected, and instead, the mandatory minimum sentences have led to some negative consequences including mass incarcerations. Some offenses, especially low-level non-violent offenses, do not necessarily need a mandatory minimum; instead, they should have the judge’s discretion. Mass incarceration overcrowds the prison facilities and the federal government ends up spending millions of dollars to house the offenders instead of seeking other options to help an individual such as putting them in a rehabilitation center (Gabor, 2001). For example, there is no need to put a first-time drug offender in prison for five years; instead, it would be more beneficial to place them in a system where they can get off the drugs or avoid selling the drug in the first place (Holder, 2016). The judicial system should relax the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that target first-time non-violent offenders and replace them with the judges own discretion to enable them to make a ruling based on the evidence presented before them. It will allow them to apply alternative solutions to incarceration and in that way address the overcrowded prisons and sentencing disparities.

Review of Research and Policy

Mandatory minimum sentencing refers to the laws set by Congress which stipulate that individuals who commit certain crimes deserve automatic fixed minimum prison terms. For example, the basic sentence of vehicular homicide carries basic incarceration of 15 years, while an offender convicted of murder faces life imprisonment (Holder, 2016). Moreover, according to federal law, selling 28 grams of crack cocaine earns a minimum sentence of five years while the minimum for selling 280 grams is ten years (Gross, 2008). Critics argue that Although the sentencing guidelines were intended to further justice by increasing objectivity in sentencing, “mandatory minimums” have severely diminished judicial discretion, the intended core of objectivity in the criminal justice system (Gross, 2008). Critics lament that the mandatory minimum policies limit the authority of the judges since they do not allow the judges to deliver alternative punishments (Tonry, 2014). Traditionally, the idea behind the mandatory minimum policy was to deter crime, but the deterrent impact of the mandatory minimum sentences is yet to bear fruit (Holder, 2016). Instead, the policy continues to cause an explosion in the prison system due to the mass incarceration of first-time non-violent offenders who should with the judges’ discretion face alternative punishments.

The United States has disturbing confinement rates arising from the continued application of the mandatory minimum policy. It is ironic that the US hosts 5% of the total world population yet it accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners (NeSmith, 2014). It all began in the 1980s after President Reagan’s regime had declared the War on Drugs and consequently passed the mandatory minimum sentences (Lamb, 2014). The lawmakers thought If all the drug users and dealers were locked in jail, crime and drug use would no longer be an issue (Lamb, 2014). However, while the lawmakers had good intentions, they did not foresee the incarceration problems that would emerge later. Prior to the passing of the mandatory minimum sentences, there were about 350,000 prisoners in the United States, but in less than a decade that number soared to 660,000 (Lamb, 2014). Shockingly, within two decades (1983-2000), the number of prisoners had soared to over two million and continues to rise (NeSmith, 2014). Although the mandatory minimum policy mainly applies to drug-related offenses, it continues to apply to other criminal activities including firearms possession, pornography, sexual assault, and economic offenses. At first, the one-size-fits-all sentencing laws may appear to offer a quick-fix solution for criminal activities, but they end up increasing the prison populations (FAMM, 2017). Reports indicate that nearly 55% of the prisoners are in prison for drug-related offenses with most of them being first-time non-violent offenders (Smith & Hattery, 2010). Failure to relax the mandatory minimum laws means that mass incarceration will continue to exert pressure on the prison facilities.

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One reason for the relaxation of the mandatory minimum sentencing is because the law is unjust to some people. The mandatory minimum policy fails to recognize that although two individuals may commit the same type of crime, the severity may differ (DeFina & Hannon, 2013). Law reviewers argue Mandatory minimums undermine our commitment to justice and fairness by preventing the judges from taking into account the individual’s background and the circumstances of his or her offenses in the sentencing determination (FAMM, 2017). The implication is that the policy embraces a one size fits all approach, which means that all offenders even first-time offenders get the same sentence as hardened criminals. For example, in a case involving the possession of illegal drugs a first-time drug user may get the same sentence as a kingpin who has been in the drug selling business for several years (Gross, 2008). For that reason, one cannot help but feel that although every criminal activity has consequences, the mandatory minimum law seems to work in favor of some offenders at the expense of others (Tonry, 2014). The policy puts individual offenders into a general category and ends up making them spend numerous jail sentences which they do not really deserve.

Since the mandatory minimum policies are unjust to some individuals, especially first-time non-violent offenders, one cannot help but feel that the mandatory minimum sentencing should be placed with the judge’s discretion instead of the guidelines instituted by Congress. At this point, it is imperative to point out that judicial discretion refers to the judge’s power to make decisions after weighing the facts and circumstances, which enables them to get a clear understanding of each case based on the facts presented before them (Gee, 2011). Discretionary powers offer flexible decision-making to the judge that in all fairness would ensure the reduction of unduly harsh punishments instituted by the mandatory minimum sentences (Smith & Hattery, 2010). The mandatory minimum laws tend to tie the judges hands such that they cannot apply their wisdom to utilize an individualized, evidence-based sentencing model (NeSmith, 2014). The policy is unfair since it has resulted in the mass incarceration of low-level offences including petty theft offenders, shoplifters, and non-violent low-level drug users who would probably have reformed after undergoing counseling and rehabilitation. Law reforms suggest Criminal codes should be amended to set substantially lower maximum sentences scaled to the seriousness of crimes (Tory, 2014). Adjusting the mandatory minimum laws would ensure that first-time non-violent offenders benefit from flexible penalties while mandatory minimum sentencing would be viable in lawsuits involving severe atrocities (NeSmith, 2014). Overall, the continued imposition of the mandatory minimum policy without allowing the judges discretion has resulted in the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders leading to overcrowding in the federal and state prisons.

There should be reforms of the mandatory minimum sentencing policy to regulate mass incarceration which is very costly and drains the taxpayers money. The implication is that owing to the high number of incarcerated individuals, a lot of taxpayers money ends up being used up to maintain the prisoners (Smith & Hattery, 2010). The prisoners require basic needs since they are entirely dependent on the state to provide everything for them. Moreover, as the number of incarcerations increases the need to expand the prison facilities arises, and that translates into extra costs. Critics argue that Mass incarceration results in the need for additional guards and facilities to manage the growing inmate population, driving up tangible and intangible costs to both the prison system and to society (Gross, 2008). Reliable reports disclose that the estimated cost of imprisoning a single offender is $ 23,000-$30000 per year. Besides, the daily cost of running federal prisons is $4.14 million, which translates into $1.51 billion per year (Holder, 2016). As the incarceration rates increase, the cost of sustaining the prisons rises, and that means that the federal government must divert funds meant for other development agendas. However, supposing there were reforms that allowed the squashing of the mandatory minimum laws to consider alternative punishment such as rehabilitation of first-time non-violent offenders, there would be fewer incarceration rates, which translates into lower costs of operations.

There have been numerous public outcries for reforms aimed at tackling some of the disparities posed by the mandatory minimum laws. One cannot help but appreciate that there have been efforts to reform the mandatory sentencing law, especially for non-violent drug offenders. For example, Congress passed The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which aimed at reducing the discriminatory sentencing disparity between offenders caught with crack cocaine and those found with powder cocaine (FAMM, 2017). Before the passage of the Act, an offender caught with five grams of crack cocaine was bound to receive the same five-year mandatory sentence as an offender caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine (disparity from a ratio of 100-to-1). However, following the changes, the disparity between the two charges dropped to 18-to-1 (Gross, 2008). However, despite the changes, there is still the need for more effort to ensure the relaxation of the mandatory minimum policy to include the judge’s discretion to reduce the excessive penalties endured by low-level non-violent offenders.

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In conclusion, one cannot help but feel that the mandatory minimum sentencing is unfair to the first-time non-violent offenders and hence the need to reform the law including the judges discretion, which would ensure that there are alternatives to incarcerations thus mitigating the explosions in the prison facilities. The laws reviewers are coming to terms with the fact that the tough-on-crime attitudes advocated by the mandatory minimum sentences are no longer viable. Nobody can dispute the fact that the guidelines are federally regulated, but certain crimes should be left for the judges to rule on their own. Owing to their wisdom, judges are capable of making their own rulings by weighing all the evidence brought before them. Instead of having them impose the required mandatory minimum for first-time nonviolent offences, it should be possible for the judges to apply their own opinions to decide whether the individual would be better off by undergoing a different punishment rather than being in prison. The lawmakers should consider other alternatives including rehabilitation to replace the mandatory minimum sentencing to alleviate the problem of congestion in the federal prisons.


The mandatory minimum sentences continue to increase the prison population hence the need to reform the policy and pave the way for the alternative sentencing of first-time offenders. Just as it is crucial to spare surgery where physical therapy would bring the same result, it is necessary to spare incarceration where other options such as rehabilitation would suffice. Nobody can deny that every crime deserves punishment. However, the punishment received should be equal to the offence, and that is where the mandatory minimum policy fails (FAMM, 2017). Law reformers are suggesting Initiatives to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism (Holder, 2016). Reliable studies indicate that alternative punishments are advantageous to first-time non-violent offenders. For example, in cases of drug abuse, an alternative like rehabilitation provides a chance for the treatment of addiction or mental illness (Holder, 2016). Overall, the majority of the prisoners are in jail because of low-level offences that are possible to correct through rehabilitative approaches.

Rehabilitation is one of the most viable alternatives that can replace the mandatory minimum sentences imposed on first-time non-violent offenders. Some of the rehabilitative approaches include substance abuse treatment, probation and correctional programs for low-level offences. One should bear in mind that for the maximum outcome it is critical to tailor the rehabilitative approaches to fit the unique individual situation (NeSmith, 2014). For example, a rehabilitative approach for someone who is already deep into drug addiction would differ from that of a person who is just beginning. The alternative sentencing would go a long way in confronting the underlying causes of crime (Tonry, 2014). For example, a drug user may undergo rehabilitation to help him or she overcome drug addiction, which would not be the case if such a person went to prison for several years and later came back and continued indulging in drugs. It would mean that the same person would go to prison again and the vicious cycle would continue. Adopting the alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level non-violent offences means that the number of mass incarcerations would go down since the policy would only apply in instances of very serious crimes and that would save the taxpayers money (Gross, 2008). Overall, the alternative sentencing gives the offenders a chance to remain in the community, where they can continue to be productive, take care of their families and contribute to society.

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