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The Prison Problem: Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Overcrowded prisons and taxpayer dollars. This is an issue worth examining.

by Amber Finnegan

by Amber Finnegan

The national cannabis debate has shifted from “Reefer Madness” to the medical benefits and economic gain of legalized marijuana and industrial hemp. With this spreading shift, the War on Drugs has increasingly come into question. Because cannabis has lost much of its unwarranted negative reputation, it has led to a public debate about the harsh prison sentencing that goes hand-in-hand with drug convictions, and rightfully so.

John Oliver, the host of the popular HBO show Last Week Tonight, recently spoke at length about mandatory minimum sentences in an exposé over the damage this system inflicts on society and, of course, those caught in the system. He highlighted the targeting of minorities and the fact that even a number of the judges who sentence defendants believe these sentences are too harsh.

His speaking on the subject has come at a time when, just recently, the federal government has begun to acknowledge the inherent problems with the practice. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had been pushing hard for reform on the issue before stepping down earlier this year which gave the issue some momentum.

But what exactly is the problem?

Mandatory minimum sentencing doesn’t work.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the War on Drugs, which eventually led to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was aimed primarily at drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, but it also encompassed cannabis. The goal was to deter drug use and sales, which clearly has failed in its initiative as large numbers of cases are still brought to the courts today.

Before 2010, drug offense cases comprised the largest percentage of the federal caseload, only to recently be passed over by immigration cases. There are still a substantial amount of cases today. The United States Sentencing Commission found that in 2010, drug offenses made up 28 percent of reported federal cases, with more than one-quarter (26 percent or 6,161 cases) involving cannabis. This was followed by powder cocaine at 23.5 percent and crack cocaine at 20 percent. Of the cannabis cases, almost half had mandatory minimum sentences attached. In all drug cases, more than 66 percent were convicted with mandatory minimums.

These numbers are staggering when we look at how the general public’s view of cannabis has drastically shifted to a more positive light. Unfortunately, these views are slow to reach the prison system and even slower reaching President Obama, who recently granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders, few of which were for cannabis related offenses. Thousands of low-level offenders are still serving out sentences for crimes that are now legal in many places, such as Colorado, where it is legal to possess, grow and sell cannabis. The irony is sad, but devastating for those prisoners. It is also a huge economic burden.

The Federal Judicial Center (FJC) looked at the findings of the Bureau of Prisons and showed that since 1985, 70 percent of prison growth was due to increased drug sentences. This, in turn, has cost taxpayers millions. These sentences were increased, not by judges’ findings, but by mandatory minimums that force their hands in deciding an appropriate sentence and negate circumstance and the defendant's history.

The FJC found if mandatory minimums were repealed and sentencing for prisoners was in turn reduced by the discretion of judges, the federal government could have saved over $145 million for a mere 981 offenders convicted in 1990-- imagine the financial costs since. Even more, this only includes federal savings. Many state governments, which often impose their own mandatory minimum sentencing, could in turn save millions of dollars and improve thousands of lives.

The FJC concluded “there are better alternatives [than mandatory minimum sentences] that can more effectively express our values and accomplish our goals.” It has become clear over the past three decades that mandatory minimums are not only disrupting our ability to carry out our judicial system justly, but are also unnecessarily ruining the lives of people who have made minor mistakes in their past or were convicted of cannabis possession before the current legalization and decriminalization came into effect. Today, our federal and state governments need to reform the broken sentencing system and revisit all past drug conviction cases in order to do justice by those caught in the failed War on Drugs.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is a great resource in learning about current mandatory minimum sentencing laws, prisoners caught in the system and what is happening to change these practices.

As the public opinion on cannabis continues to shift toward a broader acceptance of the plant and its benefits, the sentencing practices left over from the War on Drugs are becoming recognized as too harsh and no longer acceptable. Along with the studies done by the government that show how mandatory minimum sentencing does not work, the fact that judges are unable to use their discretion at sentencing is backward.

Without change, cannabis (and other drug) offenders will continue to overcrowd prisons, cost taxpayers millions and be subjected to unfair and unnecessarily long punishments. Reform has been shown to work. In Colorado, it is estimated that the state “saved anywhere from $12 million to $40 million dollars” and prevented the arrest of 10,000 people within the first year of cannabis legalization.  


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Amber Finnegan

Amber Finnegan is a political and lifestyle blogger and photographer. She has a BA in History from San Francisco State University and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a staunch believer in legalization of cannabis and encourages socially responsible living. Follow her on Twitter @i8veggies.



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