Report Criticizes Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Sentencing Commission
US Sentencing Commission public session (US Courts)

Mandatory minimum sentencing law doesn’t do the intended job of eliminating disparities in sentences for similar crimes but it has done one thing – increased the number of prisoners in U.S. prisons, says a new report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The 645-page report looked at more than 73,000 offenders convicted of a crime that carries a mandatory minimum penalty and black offenders tend to be subjected to the harsher sentencing terms more frequently than other races and less likely to be given a break, the report found.  (Here’s the 25-page executive summary.

Among the reforms suggested by the Commission is greater judicial discretion in sentencing low-level offenders.  It also addresses overcrowding in federal prisons, which is currently at 37 percent over capacity.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission was created by Congress to provide nonpartisan expertise to advise Congress on sentencing policy.

“The Commission confirmed wha5t we’ve been saying for years: most mandatory minimum sentencing laws are too harsh, are applied inconsistently, and are fill our prisons with so many small fish that they have contributed to an overcrowding and budget crisis,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“In short, they are an expensive failure,” she said.

In addition, the report cites a 2010 survey of a majority of federal judges who believe that “mandatory minimum penalties contribute to sentencing disparity,” according to a statement by the U.S. Courts.  It notes the Judicial Conference of the U.S., the judiciary’s policy-making arm, has  a long-standing policy of opposing mandatory sentencing.

The study found that more than three-quarters (77%) of the convictions were for drug trafficking offenses, the report states.

Hispanics account for the largest group convicted of crimes with mandatory minimum penalties (38%), followed by blacks with 32%, whites at 27% and other races at under 3%.

Just seven of the 94 federal judicial districts  accounted for more than a quarter of all the cases carrying mandatory minimum penalties in 2010, the report states.

Nearly half of all offenders convicted of offenses with mandatory minimum terms were given a break under exceptions allowed by the rules.  But black offenders were least likely to get the breaks (35%), compared to whites were received the relief 47% of the time and Hispanics 56% of the time.

While only 15% of all federal offenders are subject to mandatory minimum sentencing law, black offenders remained at the highest rate of any racial group at 65%, according to the report.

History of Mandatory Minimums

It should be noted that historically mandatory minimum penalties were reserved for the most serious crimes, such as murder and treason.  But in the middle of the last century Congress began to expand the crimes that called for mandatory penalties at a set minimum time.  They expanded the use to cover not only more crimes but to make the mandatory terms longer.

Today, mandatory minimum penalties cover drug crimes, fire arms, identity theft and child sex offenses.

Drug Sentences

The average sentence under the mandatory terms for drug offenders depended largely on the type of drug involved.

The average for powder cocaine offenders was five years, two months, although the mandatory minimum is 11 years, five months.  By contrast, the average crack cocaine sentence was 6 years, 6 months, although it now has a nearly identical mandatory term as powder cocaine under the guidelines.   

 Marijuana offenders have the shortest sentences.  They are generally subject to nearly three-year terms (34 months), although mandatory term is 7 years, 9 months.

Sentencing Law & Policy blog also has a good summary and analysis of the report, here.

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