The History Behind Mandatory Minimums

We’ve talked a lot about the FIRST Step Act passed earlier this year, and how it’s affected real people and their lives behind bars. Now, though, we’re going to take a minute and dig into one of the root causes of our current issues within the criminal justice system.

Knowing how we got here is just as important to solving the problems we face as anything, as without context, our solutions would be simple shots in the dark as opposed to targeted objectives. And we desperately need targeted solutions to the problems that we face in this country.

Recidivism occurs when a former convict again commits a crime after release. And, truth be told, the best way to prevent someone from receding into a life of crime is to stop them from going to prison in the first place. As you will discover in this piece, the problem with recidivism in America really begins with mandatory minimums, specifically those on crack cocaine. They changed the landscape of criminal justice in the United States for the entire generation that followed.

How The System Originally Worked

From the days that the US was formed into a nation, the process has been pretty specific in terms of federal courts. To this day, the President nominates judges and the Senate confirms them to the bench. The reason that our courts operate in this manner is so that there is a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one side can load the judiciary.

Judges have a very strong mandate from the people. They are entrusted with making decisions that will affect the lives of others. This often includes sentencing, as well.

But, as we all know in life, every situation and circumstance is unique. In order for justice to be done, we have to ensure that the facts are heard and that context is given to each and every situation. Before the 1980s, at least at the federal level, this the way crimes were handled. Judges would do what they were appointed to do — use their judgement. By making use of federal sentencing guidelines, they would consider the merits of a case and use that in accordance with the guidelines as written. That all changed with the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act.

Mandatory Minimums: The New Way

The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act made a monumental decision. It effectively took the power out of a judge’s hands to sentence guilty persons based on the merits of the case. Instead, new sentencing called mandatory minimums were imposed.

As the name states, these are minimum sentences that were not up to interpretation. If a person was found guilty of particular crimes — like the distribution of crack cocaine — then judges were bound by law to hand down a sentence minimum. It didn’t matter if the offender had no history of criminal activity. It didn’t matter if the offender were being coerced. It simply didn’t matter.

These penalties were even deemed by congress as being harsh, in order to act as a deterrent. The logic employed at the time said that a rational human would see the cost of committing crimes like dealing crack cocaine and would then choose not to engage in the behavior.

Furthermore, there were issues that went beyond that. Something called “truth in sentencing” ended up extending sentences far longer than they usually would be.

For instance, normally, an inmate will serve about 75% of their sentence. Most will rehabilitate and qualify for parole earlier than the actual time listed for good behavior. But the “truth in sentencing” laws mean that, even if a criminal has completely changed his ways, he’s still going to serve the remainder of the sentence behind bars. Not contributing to society, not getting a job and paying taxes, not spending time with their families and helping to build their communities — simply locked away, purely out of spite.

Also, the concept of “three strikes” laws that many state legislatures have implemented are an additional way to circumvent sentencing guidelines and to simply lock a person up and throw away the key. In these systems, an offender could commit three small misdemeanors and get severe sentences, including life in prison.

But what ended up happening as a result is a problem that we are still dealing with to this day, and will not soon recover from without great effort.

Unintended Consequences

The problem is that mandatory minimums effectively made most of our prisons academies for violent crime.

Take an offender who’s only 17, gets caught distributing crack cocaine for the first time, and without a record. Then, that same offender gets put int prison for ten years — the mandatory minimum sentence. By the time he gets out at 27, he has no marketable job skills, yet has received an education in criminal activity while in prison. Unfortunately, our system takes all criminals, regardless of history of violence, and places them all into the same place.

The outcome means that 17 year old is all but guaranteed to commit more crimes once released. It’s all he’s known in his entire adult life. Now, there are some who point out that there are plenty of programs for bettering one’s self while behind bars, and this is true. But not everyone has access to them. Not everyone has the resources needed to get through them. And not everyone has had the good fortune of being mentored into making better life choices.

There are so many additional issues that come up when talking about recidivism and what factors lead to more crime. It’s imperative that we expand the conversation to get deeper into what causes recidivism, and how we can stop a person from going to prison to begin with. That is the only way that we’ll stop recidivism for good.

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