The Injustice of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

One of the most damaging aspects of our perpetually destructive war on drugs is the invention of mandatory minimum sentences. The laws that created them were passed by politicians seeking to present themselves as tough on drugs and tough on crime but they are doing enormous damage to individuals and to society. A sitting federal judge, Mark W. Bennett, explains why:

Growing up in blue collar Circle Pines, Minnesota, in the 1950s, raised by parents from the “Greatest Generation,” I dreamed only of becoming a civil rights lawyer. My passion for justice was hard-wired into my DNA. Never could I have imagined that by the end of my 50s, after nineteen years as one of 678 federal district court judges in the nation, I would have sent 1,092 of my fellow citizens to federal prison for mandatory minimum sentences ranging from sixty months to life without the possibility of release. The majority of these women, men and young adults are nonviolent drug addicts. Methamphetamine is their drug of choice. Crack cocaine is a distant second. Drug kingpins? Oh yes, I’ve sentenced them, too. But I can count them on one hand. While I’m extremely proud of my father’s service in World War II, I am greatly conflicted about my role in the “war on drugs.”

As you should be, as the war on drugs is not just a bad idea, it’s a profoundly immoral one that is destroying lives. Unfortunately, a judge’s hands are now tied by these mandatory minimum sentences.

I recently sentenced a group of more than twenty defendants on meth trafficking conspiracy charges. All of them pled guilty. Eighteen were “pill smurfers,” as federal prosecutors put it, meaning their role amounted to regularly buying and delivering cold medicine to meth cookers in exchange for very small, low-grade quantities to feed their severe addictions. Most were unemployed or underemployed. Several were single mothers. They did not sell or directly distribute meth; there were no hoards of cash, guns or countersurveillance equipment. Yet all of them faced mandatory minimum sentences of sixty or 120 months. One meth-addicted mother faced a 240-month sentence because a prior meth conviction in county court doubled her mandatory minimum. She will likely serve all twenty years; in the federal system, there is no parole, and one serves an entire sentence minus a maximum of a 15 percent reduction rewarded for “good time.” …

If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.

Putting these people in prison doesn’t help them or society as a whole. What they need is drug treatment and a system that helps them become productive citizens after treatment. But prison is the only tool we have now. And as the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Comments

  1. wscott says

    If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do.

    Speaking as someone who thought mandatory minimum sentencing sounded like a good idea 20 years ago, I can only apologize to the world for my mistake. Even if they did work, the cure is worse than the disease. Which is kinda how I feel about the whole drug war now.

  2. Michael Heath says

    When I first started studying American history, I was annoyed at how historians focused so much on race and slavery regardless of the period from the 18th century to today. I thought they over-emphasized this topic in terms of accurately describing what causes yielded the unfolding of events. However the more I studied the more I learned they probably under-represent the effect race relations have impacted our history and how we ended-up here.

    Within this context I’ve long wondered if Barack Obama would have led the effort to end the Drug War as part of a response to bringing the country to a saner fiscal policy if he happened to be white. I realize there’s compelling evidence he wouldn’t, that he’s an establishmentarian by heart where I agree he is; however I also see a very practical executive where the opportunity presents itself given the fact both parties realize we have to cut some spending. I happen to prefer cutting defense and the costs of running the drug war and think arguments contra this don’t hold up well at all to scrutiny (though scrutiny doesn’t stop Republicans from making harmful policy).

  3. NitricAcid says

    Twenty years for selling cough syrup to meth cookers? Insane.

    I guess I’d better stop complaining that I had to rewrite my lab manual because we can’t order things like anthranilic acid anymore (the chemical supply company is afraid that a small college might be using it to make meth).

  4. andrewjohnston says

    The meth problem is a perfect example of how mandatory minimums don’t work and can’t work. As Bennett suggests, many people involved in the production of methamphetamine are not dealers, but addicts. In Kansas, a lot of small labs are producing meth for the owner’s personal use – they only sell enough to fund future production. These poor bastards have a biological and psychological need to use meth, and there’s nothing the state can do to them that will trump that.

    The way you stop drug use is by treating the existing addicts and running programs that stop people from becoming addicts. Nebraska figured that out, and their highly-effective campaigns cut meth abuse in half in just a few years. My home state has decided that this would be much too sensible.

  5. eric says

    andrewjonhston – I suspect that, while 50% of Americans would leap up and clap at the statement “we have cut meth use in half without sending anyone to prison,” the other 50% would see it as a failure precisely because no one went to jail. For some folks, making sure others get punished for behavior they see as bad is much more important than reducing behavior they see as bad.

  6. andrewjohnston says

    @eric: Oh, it was even more crass than that. A few years back, the Kansas legislature was considering a similar program, so they brought in the architects of the Nebraska campaign to talk about it. They made it very clear that it entailed more than just running a few PSAs on the local affiliates – it was an extremely intensive campaign. Officials would have to identify communities that were at high risk for meth abuse and work with them specifically. After they heard that, the legislature decided that the program was too expensive and elected to stick with their drug-war-in-miniature (which I guarantee is not cheaper over the long run).

    Responses like that make it clear that this “tough on drugs” business has more to do with image than reducing substance abuse.

  7. Sastra says

    eric #5 wrote:

    For some folks, making sure others get punished for behavior they see as bad is much more important than reducing behavior they see as bad.

    QFT.

    And your observation looks to me like it would be applicable to many issues other than the ‘war on drugs’ — ranging from criminal behavior in general to birth control to abortion to apologetics on damnation and the existence of God.

  8. davem says

    20 years without remission? That’s beyond fucked up. Think of the cost alone: 20 years holding someone plus the rest of their life on welfare because they can’t get a job, vs treating their addiction.

  9. wscott says

    @ 2 Michael: Per the “Only Nixon Could Go To China” rule, I think only a Republican can end the drug war. I actually had an ounce of hope in 2001 that Dubya might take some modest steps in that direction, especially since 9-11 gave him the perfect cover. No dice obviously. And given the ideological fanaticism that currently rules the GOP, I think it’ll be another 10 years before we have a Republican President that can even consider moderation without committing political suicide.

    @ 6 Gregory: The whole point of mandatory minimums was to reduce judicial discretion. Drug sentences used to vary widely based on what judge you happened to draw, since many judges favored treatment over jail time. (True of most crimes to a degree, but it was far more prevalent in drug cases.) Mandatory minimums were specifically sold as a way to make sure drug dealers didn’t “get off easy” because they wound up in front of a bleeding-heart judge. Nothing inherently wrong with the argument in theory, but the “minimums” were set absurdly high to please the Tough On Crime folks. And because users are so much easier to arrest that dealers, users have wound up bearing the brunt of the mandatory minimums.

    @ 7 baal: No one argument or moment of clarity, it just evolved over time. Particularly because I’ve yet to see any evidence that they actually, you know…have any measurable effect.

  10. wscott says

    @ 11 davem: Damn right the math doesn’t make sense. But you’re looking at long term costs, something today’s politicians seem unwilling/unable to do regardless of the topic. On the short term just-get-me-through-the-next-election balance sheet incarceration looks cheaper, especially if you don’t include the costs of building jails, etc.

  11. ethanol says

    #14 WMDKitty

    As a person who lived 5 years in a neighborhood with many meth addicts, I can say for certain that this is not the case. Of course there are violent meth addicts, but the majority just commit petty property crime.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    ‘ On the short term just-get-me-through-the-next-election balance sheet incarceration looks cheaper, especially if you don’t include the costs of building jails, etc.’
    …plus the fact that locking people up serves as covert Keynesian job creation. Instead of burying money in holes in the ground and leaving it to private enterprise to dig it up again, build prisons, fill them and pay warders to keep them full. It looks as if being a prison warder is steadiest job in the USA after being a prisoner.

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