Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws

Pros, Cons, and the Controversial History Explained

Tougher Sentencing Blamed For Crowded Prisons
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In reaction to an increase in the amount of cocaine being smuggled into the United States and cocaine addiction epidemic proportions in the 1980s, the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures adopted new laws that stiffened the penalties for anyone convicted of trafficking certain illegal drugs. These laws made jail terms mandatory for drug dealers and anyone in possession of certain amounts of illegal drugs.

While many citizens support such laws many view them as inherently biased against African Americans. They see these laws as part of a system of systemic racism which oppresses people of color. One example of mandatory minimums being discriminatory was that possession of powdered cocaine, a drug associated with white businessmen was sentenced less harshly than crack cocaine which was more associated with African American men.

History and the War on Drugs

Mandatory drug sentencing laws came about in the 1980s in the height of the War on Drugs. The seizure of 3,906 pounds of cocaine, valued then at over $100 million wholesale, from a Miami International Airport hangar on March 9, 1982, brought about the public's awareness of the Medellin Cartel, Colombian drug traffickers working together, and changed U.S. law enforcement's approach towards the drug trade. The bust also sparked new life into the War on Drugs.

Lawmakers began to vote more money for law enforcement and began to create stiffer penalties for not only drug dealers, but for drug users.

Latest Developments In Mandatory Minimums

More mandatory drug sentences are being proposed. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a proponent of mandatory sentencing, has introduced a bill to Congress called "Defending America's Most Vulnerable: Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act of 2004." The bill is designed to increase mandatory sentences for specific drug offenses. It includes mandatory sentencing of 10 years to life in prison for any person age 21 or over who attempts or conspires to offer drugs (including marijuana) to someone younger than 18 years old. Anyone who has offered, solicited, enticed, persuaded, encouraged, induced, or coerces or possess a controlled substance, will be sentenced to a term not less than five years. This bill was never enacted. 

Pros of Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws

Supporters of mandatory minimums view it as a way to deter drug distribution and use by extending the time that a criminal is incarcerated therefore preventing them from committing more drug-related crimes.

One reason mandatory sentencing guidelines are established is to increase sentencing uniformity—to guarantee that defendants, who commit similar crimes and have similar criminal backgrounds, receive similar sentences. Mandatory guidelines for sentencing greatly curtail judges' sentencing discretion.

Without such mandatory sentencing, defendants in the past, guilty of virtually the same offenses under the same circumstances, have received vastly different sentences in the same jurisdiction, and in some cases from the same judge. Proponents argue that a lack of sentencing guidelines opens up the system to corruption.

Cons of Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws

Opponents to the mandatory sentencing feel that such punishment is unjust and does not allow for flexibility in the judicial process of prosecuting and sentencing individuals. Other critics of mandatory sentencing feel that the money spent in longer incarceration has not been beneficial in the war against drugs and could be better spent on other programs designed to fight drug abuse.

A study performed by the Rand Company said such sentences have proven to be ineffective in curtailing drug use or drug related crime. "The bottom line is that only decision makers who are very myopic would find long sentences to be appealing," said study leader Jonathan Caulkins of Rand's Drug Policy Research Center. The high cost of incarceration and the small results that it has shown in fighting the war on drugs, show that such money would be better spent on shorter sentencing and drug rehabilitation programs.

Other opponents to mandatory sentencing include Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in August 2003 in a speech to the American Bar Association, denounced minimum mandatory prison terms. "In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust," he said and encouraged the bar to be leaders in the search for justice in sentencing and in racial inequities.

Dennis W. Archer, former Detroit mayor and Michigan Supreme Court Justice takes the position that "it is time for America to stop getting tougher and start getting smarter against crime by reassessing mandatory sentencing and irrevocable prison terms." In an article posted on the ABA website, he states, "The idea that Congress can dictate a one-size-fits-all sentencing scheme does not make sense. Judges need to have the discretion to weigh the specifics of the cases before them and determine an appropriate sentence. There is a reason we give judges a gavel, not a rubber stamp"

Where It Stands

Because of cuts in many state budgets, and overcrowded prisons due to mandatory drug sentencing, lawmakers are facing a financial crisis. Many states have begun to use alternatives to imprisonment for drug offenders—usually called "drug courts"—in which defendants are sentenced into treatment programs, rather than jail. In states where these drug courts have been established, officials are finding this approach to be a more effective way of approaching the drug problem.

Research shows that drug court alternatives are not only more cost-effective than prison sentences for defendants who commit non-violent crimes, they help reduce the rate of defendants who return to a life of crime after completing the program.

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Montaldo, Charles. "Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, July 30). Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).