2015 Summit: Restorative Justice Opinions

Students debate effectiveness of mandatory minimums

Mandatory minimums still effective

By Gabe Morrison ’17
THE ROUNDUP

As mandatory minimums become increasingly unpopular due to a worrisome number of cases in which people are over-sentenced, the concept still remains a viable idea, so long as they’re given fairly.

Mandatory minimums are laws that require criminals to serve a predetermined, minimum amount of time in jail for their specific crime. Judges do not have the power to lower the sentence past this mandatory minimum.

Mandatory minimums have the potential to act as a deterrent against crime, while assuring a fair amount of time in prison for those prosecuted.

Although there are issues with the use of mandatory minimums, the issues are not with mandatory minimums themselves but with lengths assigned to those minimums.

As currently constructed, mandatory minimums often overly punish, specifically to drug abusers due to a “cliff effect” that punishes people by giving disproportionately longer sentences for possession of slightly more drugs.

For example, federal law mandates that the mandatory minimum for possession of 5.00 or fewer grams of crack-cocaine is one year in prison, but the mandatory minimum for possession of 5.01 grams of the same substance is 63 months.

It is also unjust and expensive to keep people in jail who don’t deserve to be there.

Recognizing this flaw, mandatory minimums are beneficial in multiple ways.

First, they help prevent crime. After their implementation in the late 1980s, the 1990s saw a dramatic decrease in crime.

This was likely due to the implementation mandatory minimums, which acted as a deterrent to criminals.

Second, mandatory minimums assure that there are not unduly lenient sentences or that there is disparity in sentence severity due to an biased judge. Though judges are supposed to be impartial, everyone has a bias.

Mandatory minimums assure that even in a case of a biased judge, there is a specific punishment that fits the crime.

Third, mandatory minimums are helpful to law enforcement agencies because they can act as leverage when attempting to gain information and take down drug organizations.

After someone has been arrested for dealing drugs, law enforcement can work to make the sentence lower than the mandatory minimum if the convicted person pleads to a lesser change in order to take down others in their drug organization. Without the mandatory minimums, criminals do not have an incentive to help law enforcement because there’s no assurance the sentence will be shortened.

Finally, in response to the common argument against mandatory minimums that they are unfair, the unfair part of the sentence is the length.

There would be protest against a heinous crime having a trivial mandatory minimum.

Therefore, the length of the crime is the issue at fault, not the policy of the mandatory minimum itself.

I believe new legislation, such as the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, should be passed because it has the potential to help reduce the unfair sentencing.

To summarize the act, it ends the “cliff effect” for all relatively low-level drug offenders.

This makes sense because it seems foolish that there should be a significant difference in punishment for possession of marginally higher amount of a certain drug.

The idea of mandatory minimums is not a bad one, but it could be far more effective and fair with refinements such as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Mandatory minimums harmful, unjust

By Anthony Cardellini ’17
THE ROUNDUP

Mandatory minimum sentencing harms many of the most important aspects of our society.

A mandatory minimum is a law that states for a certain crime, a criminal must be jailed for a set number of days. Minimums take the power out of the hands of judges, harming the justice system.

The problem with these laws is that they assume that judges are biased in their rulings. But let’s remember two important points.

First, judges are trained professionals who are tested to make sure they give fair sentencing. Judicial education greatly lowers any possibility of a judge giving randomly unfair judgment in the field. This education means that judges without bias will give fair sentences.

Second, biased judges can easily be challenged. Proponents of mandatory minimums fail to remember that any defense attorney can appeal a ruling at a local court and move the case to a higher court. Higher courts are more government controlled, allowing anyone to get an unbiased ruling.

Because of this, the justice system is being hurt, as mandatory minimums take power away from judges and juries, without any solid reason. It gives more power to prosecutors who devise the sentences but aren’t as professional as judges, who can look at the details of each crime.

Second, criminals are at a large disadvantage as well.

The first point in this argument is that mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime at all. Interviews with convicted felons have shown that crime deterrence only happens effectively when criminals have a greater chance of being caught, not when the punishment is greater.

In fact, according to the interviews with convicts by the Russell Sage Foundation, more than a third of criminals said they didn’t think of the punishment at all before committing a crime. Criminals don’t give punishments enough thought for minimums to have any effect on crime.

Mandatory-minimum sentencing disables the most important part of the justice system: having fair decisions for each specific case. Rather, they generalize crimes to the point where two completely separate circumstances result in the same punishment.

A justice system only works if it has the power to weigh all factors of a crime and carefully determine a just sentence.

Mandatory minimums don’t just deter this power—they are fundamentally against it. Because they are against it, criminals are facing longer, harsher sentences than they might if a court had actually taken into account the details of the crime.

Finally, mandatory minimums hurt public safety and the economy. Overcrowding jails have resulted in the need for more prisons, sucking up tax dollars for expensive new prisons while imprisoning people who might not even deserve it. And mandatory-minimum sentencing makes for worse criminals, who are more dangerous toward public safety. Because people who normally wouldn’t have been sentenced are sentenced under mandatory minimums, they suffer from a bad influence.

Suddenly, these people are thrust into jail for long amounts of time with people who actually deserve to be there. This fact creates worse criminals and a higher chance of second imprisonments. Obviously, more dangerous criminals pose a threat to the public and to society.

“Studies of mandatory minimums conclude that they fail to reduce crime, they waste the taxpayers’ money, and they often require the imposition of sentences that violate common sense,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia when talking about the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Overall, mandatory minimums take the power out of professional judges, preventing them from even doing their jobs.

They result in longer sentencings that don’t take into account the details of a crime. And they mold worse criminals, who can have negative impacts on our society.