Tales of Justice

Should the U.S. criminal justice system abolish mandatory minimum sentencing?

  • Alvernia Criminal Justice

On Jan. 30 the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act to address among other issues with our criminal justice system our overcrowded prisons.

One of the major amendments of the act is the abolishment of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Mandatory minimums are required sentences for drug offenders based on static criteria.

Currently, 36 states have instituted mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions. The laws in New York were the earliest and harshest. They were adopted in 1973 at the behest of then-Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose views on criminal punishment had hardened dramatically in the wake of the Attica prison riot in upstate New York in 1970.

However, there are two sides to the mandatory minimums argument.

Those who are for the minimums argue they act as a deterrent to drug crime and provide prosecutors the leverage needed to get information on cartel kingpins.

“Mandatory minimums work very well, when you have a drug offender who can provide information against a big, big player, or an organization, or a cartel,” former Federal Prosecutor Doug Burns said. “You turn around and charge him with 20 years of mandatory time, and the defense attorney knows the only realistic way out of that is cooperation.”

But, of course, there are prisoners serving mandatory minimums that many argue shouldn’t be in jail for that long or maybe at all.

According to an article by pundit Donna Brazile, “Fifteen years ago, in Tallahassee, a federal judge sentenced Stephanie George, 27, the mother of two children, to life imprisonment without parole for possession of a half-kilogram of cocaine that her boyfriend (without her knowledge, she claimed) hid in a lockbox in her attic. She had no history of violence.

“The judge said Stephanie had some guilt, but he also believed she was not involved deeply enough in her boyfriend’s drug trade to warrant spending the rest of her days in prison. However, mandatory sentencing laws dictated her sentence.”

As a criminal justice student, what do you think about eliminating mandatory minimums? Are you for it or against it? And why?

Read more about the bill in this article from The New York Times.

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