Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Drug-Related Offenses

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The proposed study investigates the proliferation of mandatory prison sentence minimums for drug offenders. Since the late 1980s, the War on Drugs has created a national environment where even simple possession can lead to exorbitant prison stints of many years, which does not effectively reflect the nature of the crime committed. Those incarcerated on drug charges are an economic drain on the American justice system, and some jurisdictions have responded to this by seeking out alternative sentences for drug offenders. Eliminating mandatory sentencing minimums for those convicted of drug-related crimes dramatically reduces prison populations and leads to more effective drug policy.


In the United States, those indicted on drug-related charges, ranging from drug trafficking to simple possession, have long been unfairly treated by the justice system due to the enactment of mandatory sentencing minimums. These minimums are ostensibly in place to promote greater public welfare, but that logic is difficult to justify when, every day, other criminals receive less strict sentences for more heinous crimes that outwardly affect public safety, like financial or violent crimes. The judicial precedents set during the beginnings of the War on Drugs are no longer effective, and in order to correct the nation’s course of action, change must be enacted to allow the American judicial system to shift their focus to more pertinent issues. Eliminating mandatory sentencing minimums for those convicted of drug-related crimes dramatically reduces prison populations and leads to more effective drug policy.

Literature Review

Mandatory sentencing minimum statutes in regards to drug laws became widely used in the wake of the 1986 passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established tiered penalties for drug use and trafficking. Various reports since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act highlighted the law’s failures, such as a lack of distinction penalty-wise between serious drug traffickers and street dealers. Congress’ Sentencing Commission heard testimony on multiple occasions that the penalties imposed “sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level offenders…and fail to provide adequate proportionality” (Steiker, 2013, p. 32), but nothing was done to amend the law until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which still failed to eliminate the aforementioned sentencing disparities. Furthermore, state and local jurisdictions take widely varied approaches to doling out punishment. Some offer drug courts and treatment programs for addicts in lieu of jail time, others have harsher sentencing statutes in place than what was set in place by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The assembly-line nature of drug case processing in these jurisdictions also means that offenders don’t get an adequate chance to exercise their full range of rights, and are thus faced with pressure to simply take the minimum penalty for their offense without consulting an attorney (Lynch, 2012). Exorbitant mandatory minimums also cause economic harm on all levels. The federal prison population has exceeded its capacity by over 36%, and the federal government spends over $5 billion annually on corrections. In 2011, state governments spent nearly $52 billion on corrections (Barkow, 2012). It is economically unfeasible for prisons to harbor that many inmates, especially when a significant portion of those incarcerated are serving sentences for drug-related offenses.

In recent years, the call for sentencing reform has grown louder, with critics of harsh sentencing laws addressing that Congress is tackling the problem incorrectly. “It does not approach sentencing from the perspective of those who work in the system day to day…its views of needed and desirable change in the past twenty years have focused on two elements: harsher sentences and less judicial discretion” (Beale, 2012, p. 385). This federal inflexibility has forced states to enact laws that better address drug offenders instead of slapping them with an exorbitant prison sentence. For example, in 2000, California voters passed Proposition 36, which automatically sentenced non-violent offenders who were charged with drug possession, drug use, or transport of drugs for personal use to probation with drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. The law’s passage led to reduced prison populations, and offenders diverted to treatment were found to be less likely to be recidivist. These offenders also received greater access to health services to cure their addiction that they would likely not find while incarcerated (Nicosia, MacDonald, & Paccula, 2012). Reformers are also concerned with providing an easier path to freedom for those incarcerated as a result of mandatory minimums. One popular suggestion is to reinstate parole for federal offenders serving long-term sentences, especially in cases where the offender’s punishment involved one or more mandatory minimums. While Congress was trying to make a political point by abolishing parole in the 80’s – seeking to keep potential criminals from acting on their criminal urges due to fear of a harsh sentence without possibility of parole – it is evident now that the plan is not as effective as previously hoped, on both judicial and economic levels. “At some point the diminishing returns of punishment are outweighed by the concrete (and substantial) costs of incarcerating prisoners” (Cassel & Luna, 2011, p. 226). However, eliminating mandatory minimums outright for drug offenders has the potential to be more effective than reinstating parole at reducing prison populations and creating an impetus to change how the government treats drug abusers.


Eliminating mandatory sentencing minimums for those convicted of drug-related crimes dramatically reduces prison populations and leads to more effective drug policy. The independent variable is the elimination of mandatory minimums, and the dependent variables are reductions in prison populations and more effective drug policy. The subjects for study will be prisoners incarcerated on drug-related charges who have been victims of excessive mandatory minimum sentencing, law enforcement officials who frequently deal with cases of this nature, and a sample of the general public to gauge public opinion on current drug policy.

Conceptually, drug policy can be defined as the laws and statutes in place directly addressing drug use in the United States on federal, state, and local levels. Operationally, the potential for drug policy to be changed can be interpreted as a preference by the sample population for a different punishment or method of treatment than what is currently available and/or used by the judiciary system. Conceptually, prison populations are defined as the number of people incarcerated, while operationally these populations can be specifically measured by those who are incarcerated for longer than one year on drug-related offenses as a byproduct of a mandatory minimum.

In order to comprehensively address this issue, a combination of surveys and interviews will be used for data collection. Surveys will be used to gauge public opinion on appropriate punishments for drug offenders versus current punishments, addressing current and future policy concerns. Interviews with key judicial players – judges, police officers, etc. – will provide a professional opinion from law enforcement on how to best address drug offenders to reduce prison populations and subsequent spending.


In the pilot study, a survey was conducted using Facebook of twenty peers regarding their views on current drug policy, specifically in regards to mandatory minimum sentencing versus probation and treatment as methods of punishment. Five questions were asked: age, gender, if the respondent felt that a prison sentence was appropriate sentencing for drug possession or use, if the respondent felt that a prison sentence was appropriate sentencing for drug trafficking, and if the respondent felt that a treatment-and-probation sentence would be more effective at rehabilitating drug users than prison time.

The survey results showed that while 70% of respondents felt that drug trafficking was justifiably punished with a prison sentence, only 20% felt that a prison sentence was appropriate for drug use or possession. 85% of respondents felt that a treatment-and-probation sentence would be more effective at rehabilitating drug users than prison time. The survey was not difficult to conduct, and it was enlightening to see the different opinions of a public sample on an important aspect of judicial policy.

This research has the potential to directly affect public policy. As previously mentioned, calls for sentencing reform have been ongoing for the better part of two decades, with little action being taken on the federal level to remedy the problem. The elimination of mandatory minimums for drug-related offenses can lead to a drastic reduction in future prison populations, reducing the economic burden that prisons have on federal, state, and local governments. The promotion of alternative sentences similar to California could potentially reach other states or even be enacted on a federal level with enough public backing. Since it is unlikely that the federal government is going to engage in massive drug decriminalization on the scale that countries such as Portugal have, the next best thing is the implementation of more appropriate sentences for drug offenders, particularly those who could receive better treatment outside of a prison setting.

The biggest foreseeable weakness in the study’s design is the potential difficulty in securing interviews with law enforcement officials. Since professional opinion on the matter is essential to the study’s success, so members of the judicial system who are willing to talk with on the issue of mandatory sentencing minimums for drug offenders must be found. This may require reaching out to officials outside of the immediate area if sufficient answers can’t be found in this county.

On this subject, future research could be done to investigate other instances where state and local jurisdictions either disregarded or did away with the federally imposed mandatory minimums in drug-related cases, instead choosing to implement a different punishment that better suits the offense. Focusing on the successes of others can help pave the way for a broader public policy shift in the future.


Barkow, R. E. (2012). Sentencing guidelines at the crossroads of politics and expertise. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 160, 1599-1630.

Beale, S. S. (2012). Is now the time for major federal sentencing reform? Federal Sentencing Reporter, 24(5), 382-386.

Cassel, P. G. & Luna, E. (2011). Sense and sensibility in mandatory minimum sentencing. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 23(3), 219-227.

Harris, M. E. (2013). The cost of mandatory minimum sentences. Florida Coastal Law Review, 14, 419-450.

Lynch, M. (2012). Theorizing the role of the 'war on drugs' in US punishment. Theoretical Criminology, 16(2), 175-199.

Nicosia, N., MacDonald, J. M., & Paccula, R. L. (2012). Does mandatory diversion to drug treatment eliminate racial disparities in the incarceration of drug offenders? An examination of California’s Proposition 36. NBER Working Paper Series, 18518, 1-48.

Steiker, C. S. (2013). Lessons from two failures: Sentencing for cocaine and child pornography under the federal sentencing guidelines in the United States. Law and Contemporary Problems, 76(1), 27-52.