Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Drug Policy Question of the Week – 11-21-11

As answered by Mary Jane Borden, Editor of Drug War Facts for the Drug Truth Network on 11-21-11.

Question of the Week: What are mandatory minimum sentences?

As described by the Sentencing Project,

“Along with the stepped-up pace of arrests in the 1980s, legislatures throughout the country adopted harsher sentencing laws in regard to drug offenses. The federal system, in particular, led the way with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and … of 1988. Among a number of provisions, these laws created a host of severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses and affected the calibration of the federal Sentencing Guidelines, which were being formulated simultaneous to these statutory changes. The result of these developments was to remove discretion from the sentencing judge to consider the range of factors pertaining to the individual and the offense that would normally be an integral aspect of the sentencing process, thereby increasing the number of individuals in federal court exposed to a term of incarceration for a drug offense.”

In its recent report to Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission contended that,

“Sentencing data and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys indicate that mandatory minimum penalties that are considered excessively severe tend to be applied inconsistently.”

The other unintended consequences of mandatory minimum penalties were enumerated by The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to include,

“significant increases in the costs of corrections due to longer prison terms and an increasing prison population; removal from consideration of other sentencing options that may prove to be less costly and/or more effective than mandatory incarceration; and Impact on … pleas or verdicts and offender eligibility for rehabilitation programs and early release.”

The Commission concluded,

“Addressing the growth in the state prison population, particularly involving drug-related offenders, requires systemic change.”

These facts and others like them can be found in the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing chapter of Drug War Facts at