Understanding Mandatory Minimum Penalties For Federal Drug Crimes

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At the start of the War on Drugs back in the 1980s, U.S. Congress devised mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes. This is a move that has been highly criticized, particularly in recent years, and it looks like things are indeed changing. Starting on November 1, 2014, sentencing decisions will no longer take into account the quantities of drugs that a offender was carrying. This also means that those already sentenced will be able to apply for a sentence reduction, retrospectively. Although there is some criticism against this move, there are a number of facts that can demonstrate that the mandatory minimum sentencing arrangements have failed our society.

Since Congress created mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 prisoners to over 218,000 prisoners – the largest prison system in the country.

Some Quick Facts

No other country has as many prisoners as what we do, with 1% of the population currently being in jail. The financial cost of this currently stands at $6.8 billion per year, which is staggering, particularly when considering that the rates of recidivism have not dropped. The social impact of this is frightening, with some 1.7 million children currently having at least one parent in jail, which is an increase of 80% since 1991. Furthermore, the conditions in which people are incarcerated are awful, with 40% overcrowding occurring in the various prisons. All prisoners in federal jails on drug charges have to serve at least 85% of their sentence, as there is no parole.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses

At present, the mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense is guided by the quantity of drugs that a person is carrying.

A ten-year mandatory minimum penalty with a maximum term of life imprisonment is triggered by offenses involving the following drug quantities and types, among others: one kilogram or more of heroin, five kilograms or more of powder cocaine, 280 grams or more of crack cocaine,
1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana, and 50 grams or more of pure methamphetamine.

Five-year mandatory penalties are put in place for charges with lower quantities. The Sentencing Commission has now decided, however, that other factors are of far greater importance. For instance, whether someone was also carrying – or using – a firearm and what the intended purpose for the drugs were are more important. It is likely that this will lead to a 20% reduction in the prison time convicted criminals will have to serve.

Racial Disparities

One of the reasons why there really needs to be a reform in minimum sentencing guidelines is because there is such a huge social impact in federal drug charges. This is seen to be particularly strongly in African American communities.

African Americans served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.

Indeed, 25% of our overall population is made up of African Americans and Hispanics. However, they make up 58% of the prison population. This demonstrates that there is a social issue in place that puts people of minority backgrounds in a position where they turn to a life of crime. Sociologists and psychologists agree that crime is a reflection on society. They believe that people would not choose to turn to drugs if they were given equal opportunities in life. These equal opportunities do not seem to exist at present, and this reiterated by the fact that minority populations for the majority of prison populations. Additionally, the crimes they commit are almost often related to drugs, whereas violent crimes often driven by a psychological disorder (such as serial killers and serial rapists) have been found to be predominantly white.

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