A key catalyst in our policy of mass incarceration, the widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences has proven to be a costly failure with long-term consequences.
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When 59-year-old Lee Wollard heard banging noises and his teenage daughter’s cries for help from her bedroom, he took his .357 into her room and shot it into the wall next to her boyfriend, threatening to shoot him if he didn’t leave.

A year later, Wollard was convicted with shooting into a building with a firearm, aggravated assault and child endangerment. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

When 24-year-old Weldon Angelos sold a few pounds of marijuana to a man, his customer turned out to be a police informant, who had seen a gun on Angelos while purchasing from him.

Angelos was sentenced to 56 years in prison.

When 19-year-old Jacob Lavoro made pot brownies, an anonymous caller informed police of a marijuana smell, and they searched his apartment – finding edibles, hash oil and marijuana.

Lavoro was charged with a first-degree felony and faced a life sentence in prison.

Later, Lavoro pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony charge in exchange for seven years’ probation, avoiding prison.

What do all of these cases have in common? All of them are first-time offenders, and all of them fell victim to laws that require a blanket minimum prison sentence without consideration of individual cases – mandatory minimum laws.

Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory Minimum laws date back to the late 18th century. Back then, the laws were intended to set a mandatory punishment for violent crimes in order to eliminate discrepancies between prison sentences. Punishments were specified for violent crimes like murder, rape and treason.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that mandatory minimum sentences began to expand to other offenses, largely drug and weapon-related.

In 1986, as drug use and trafficking increased and the War On Drugs took hold of the nation, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established a range of mandatory minimum penalties for drug-related crimes. Many were related to possession and distribution of crack cocaine, and ranged from 5 years to life in prison.

In 1986, Congress amended previous legislation and set a range of mandatory minimums for possessing and/or using a firearm. Possessing a firearm was five years, brandishing one was seven years, discharging one was 10.

In 1996, Congress focused on child sexual exploitation – setting minimums of 10 years for first-time offenders, 15 years for second, and at least 30 years for two prior convictions.

Between the ‘80s and today, there have been many mandatory sentences set for crimes ranging from drug possession and trafficking, to weapon possession and identity theft. A full list of current federal mandatory minimum sentences can be found here.

The High Price Tag of Incarceration

Many of the mandatory minimum sentences Congress enacted in the ‘80s and ‘90s have since received widespread criticism. The most common issues raised are whether it is morally right to assign these long sentences to all offenders, and whether it is financially worth it to do so.

Wollard, Angelos and Lavoro each received national media attention for their sentences. Many cried out that these first-time, nonviolent offenders did not deserve what they received. In Angelos’ case, the judge presiding over the case regretted the sentences he was required to impose.

Beside the significant moral ambiguity of these mandatory minimums, there are also serious financial considerations.

Annual costs per prisoner vary greatly by state, with a national average of $30,619.85.

Utah citizens are paying around $29,000 a year to keep Angelos in prison. Florida citizens are paying about $68,000 per year.

The question has become: is it worth it to pay this much to keep them locked up?

Rethinking Mandatory Minimums

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act repealed and amended mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine offenses. But, the Fair Sentencing Act was not retroactively applied to previous sentences, which means that everyone sent to prison before 2010 for crack cocaine are still there. The act also fails to address mandatory minimums for all other drug-related and weapon-related offenses, of which there are many.

However, President Obama has recently given hope to those stuck in prison due to mandatory minimums. In July, he ordered 46 nonviolent drug offenders to be freed from federal prison, saying that their sentences were given at the height of the War On Drugs and did not actually fit their crimes. He then gave a speech at the NAACP convention that outlined the problems with mass incarceration, arguing for reform.

In October, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was introduced to Senate. The bill would retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act, reduce mandatory minimums on drug sentences and expand exceptions for drug-related sentences.

Our Take

Obama’s speech and subsequent legislation have seemingly marked a turning point in our national discussion on mass incarceration and the role of mandatory minimums therein. While it’s too late to get back the fortune spent or repair the lives ruined, we can at least ensure that a semblance of sanity has been restored to our criminal justice system.

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Posted 12.22.2015 - 04:30 pm EDT