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What are Mandatory Minimums?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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Mandatory minimums were enacted in 1986 in the United States as part of the War on Drugs. A mandatory minimum sentence is imposed on certain drug convictions, meaning that if convicted an offender will spend a predetermined amount of time in jail. Mandatory minimums have been criticized by a variety of organizations which charge that they are a direct cause of prison overcrowding and not contributing in a valuable way to the War on Drugs.

Mandatory minimums look at three things in a drug conviction. The first thing taken into account is the type of drug. Mandatory sentencing varies depending which drug is involved because some drugs are viewed to be of greater harm than others.

The second issue considered is the amount of the drug. An individual carrying a high volume of a drug may be a dealer, rather than just a personal user. Therefore, mandatory minimums are higher for individuals caught carrying large amounts of drugs.

Finally, mandatory minimums look at the history of prior convictions. A lighter sentence should be imposed on an individual being convicted for the first time, while repeat offenders face longer periods of imprisonment.

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Mandatory minimums have been criticized by some members of the legal community because they do not allow judges to use their discretion in a case. Especially in the instance of non-violent offenses, mandatory minimums are viewed as somewhat unfair. Because the Federal government has a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs, an individual caught for the first time carrying a small amount of drugs for personal use will still face jail time. In these cases, a judge cannot decide to hand down a lighter sentence such as community service.

Therefore, a non-violent drug offense may be punished almost as severely as a violent one. Drug related crime is a serious issue in the United States. Opponents to mandatory minimums believe that if judges were given more sentencing leeway, they might be able to more effectively punish individuals related in violent offenses, and save the legal system money on non-violent, small time offenders.

Many believe that prison population has been directly affected by mandatory minimums. They believe that the rise in population has subsequently contributed to prison overcrowding, an increase of crime within prisons, and growing expenditures on the building and maintaining of new prisons. Critics of mandatory sentencing argue that this money could be better diverted to drug treatment programs and education.

Proponents of mandatory sentencing argue that mandatory minimum sentencing is serving a purpose. Mandatory sentencing was originally enacted to catch so called “kingpins” of the drug industry, defined as major traffickers of illegal substances such as cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine. An individual at risk of serving jail time under mandatory sentencing laws could lighten the sentence by turning in a dealer or drug ring. There are instances where this has occurred, and the threat of mandatory minimum sentencing has no doubt contributed. Unfortunately, drug kingpins tend to hide behind a wall of low level dealers, making them difficult to seek out and prosecute even with mandatory minimums.

Furthermore, supporters argue, mandatory minimums send a clear no-tolerance message to drug dealers. A mandatory minimum ensures that an individual caught carrying drugs will be punished for it in any court in America. Mandatory minimums may encourage dealers to think twice about their chosen careers, as well as ensuring that drug offenders will be treated equally in every Federal court.

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