Mira Bohannan Kumar
Mandatory minimums have been one of the greatest contributing factors to the prison state that exists in America today. These laws require harsher sentencing for drug-related crimes which has led to not only more people in prison for nonviolent crimes, but also a foreclosure on the possibility for methods like parole, which help prisoners, due to also requiring a large percent of the prescribed sentence be served, regardless of conduct while in prison. These laws, which have served as instruments of injustice in America, were created to further political motives on both sides of the aisle.
Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton expanded the crimes with mandatory minimums to drug related crimes with the intent of making it so that perpetrators of “heinous” crimes would be required to serve a certain amount of time in prison, so as to ensure that those “dangerous” to society wouldn’t be released after small amounts of time in prison and are fittingly punished for the crimes they commit. An example of a mandatory minimum is if someone is caught dealing or intending to deal 1 gram of LSD, they are required by federal law to be sentenced to at least 5 years in prison. These policies, intended to create more justice in sentencing, have had the exact opposite effect and have led to some of the greatest injustices within the penal system.
The issue is that the scope of what is considered to deserve harsh mandatory minimums includes many nonviolent crimes punishable by excessive prison time. These overly harsh punishments exist because in the 1980’s and 90’s, criminal punishment became an important political issue. At that time the public thought that those in power should be “tough on crime” and anyone “soft on crime” was unqualified to serve in public office. This meant politicians competed to prove they were the toughest on crime to make their opponents seem comparatively weak for political expediency. This led to laws that over-punish for crimes. Politicians wanted to prove they were tackling the crime problem, and to that end, they legislated the judicial branch, destroying the separation of powers and rendering judges powerless.
The political nature of crime laws like mandatory minimums is detrimental to justice because it creates situations in which judges aren’t able to decide what punishment is appropriate without federal law interfering. A judge may want to give someone a more lenient sentence due to unique circumstances of a case but is unable to because mandatory minimum laws require them to sentence people to far more prison time than they deem necessary. Taking the decisions in the courtroom from judges and handing them to politicians isn’t only ideologically flawed, it leads to lives being ruined, all in the service of political gain.
The removal of mandatory minimums is not “soft on crime.” It is a call to remove politics from the judicial system and allow judges to do their jobs without federal constraint. Giving judges the power to consider the intricacies of a case and determine sentencing based upon that instead of being forced to abide by foolish federal laws allows for fairer sentencing and prevents judges being forced to give people unnecessarily long sentences. Only through removing mandatory minimums and other unjust laws like them will this country be able to reform the criminal justice system and solve the incarceration epidemic in America today.