Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Oops.


A mandatory minimum sentence is the number of years that the fed requires you to spend in prison for a given crime, regardless of circumstance. For example, having 5 grams+ of crack = 5 years behind bars, no questions asked.

The main arguments against this system are that the sentences remove the discretion of the judge, tend to be subtly racist, fail to prevent people from doing drugs again, and aren’t cost effective.

The discretion of the judge argument goes like this. A  judge has the right to give a prisoner any punishment that he or she sees fit, taking into account any and all mitigating circumstances at his/her discretion. The judge was selected to do just this. An executive telling the judge that he must give a certain punishment violates this discretion.

To explain the racist argument, let’s examine a specific case. It would take 500 grams + of cocaine to get that same 5 year sentence (, a one to one hundred ratio, and the poor tend to use more crack because it is cheaper. The poor are more likely to be minorities. In short, minorities are punished more for drug crimes due to mandatory minimums.

The thing about recidivism rates (how likely people are to go back to jail) is that once people go to jail, they get angry. Whether or not you deserved your punishment, the average citizen doesn’t want to go to jail. In the case of small drug possession rules, most people don’t feel that the punishment is deserved. Citizens can end up feeling that the rules are dumb, or that they could avoid enforcement better next time. Both of these breed anger, and being angry predisposes you to commit another crime.

The cost effective argument is based solely on a lack of deterrence, (this deterrence based article from the Rand Drug Policy Research Center is a good example of an average one), and as I assumed that the death penalty was a good deterrent, I will assume that mandatory minimums are as well.

Note that I am doing this for the sake of consistency. There is no widely accepted scientific study that conclusively proves or disproves the deterrence factor, so any claim is essentially arbitrary. However, if you are interested in the existing studies (well, the pro deterrence studies anyway) you can check my very first blog post. It also includes some things on how you could logically prove that it’s a deterrent.

So, we are assuming that Mandatory Minimum Sentences are a deterent, basically because I feel like it, but also because it’s irrelevent. Why’s it irrelevent? Because today I’m going to do something new, and look at an issue for the human side of things, rather than the strict policy based side.


People are irrational. No matter how well they know that the government can’t change an enforcement rule just for them, or how well they know that they broke the law, they don’t want to be punished, and they get angry.

Lengthy Personal Example

Take me for example. As some of you know, I am currently at debate camp, where we have a rule that you must sign a piece of paper by 11, and by signing that paper you are agreeing to go straight to bed.

Tonight, I got in the shower at 10:49. This was obviously a stupid idea. I was positioning myself to break the rule. At 10:59, I ran out of the shower and signed the paper, then went back to the bathroom to get my stuff. At 11, the counselor walked into the bathroom and asked me if I had signed the paper. I told her I had. She told me that I had violated the rule of going straight to bed after signing the paper. I had. Now, it would be easy for me to say,”I signed the paper, then went back to my dorm and arrived before 11. How is a brief stop to pick up a comb relevant?” Or even for me to word this story somewhat differently. I could say,”OMG! I have to run stairs because I went to clean up the bathroom and was like thirty seconds late!! I could have just left that comb there, and not been in trouble. Way to give me incentives to fuck up the bathroom.” Neither of those would be very well thought out responses, but they are expressions of what most of us would have as an immediate, emotional response: This isn’t fair.


But it is fair. The law applies to each of us equally, and though if I had gotten fifty years in prison instead of fifty flights of stairs I would be more angry, it would still be fair. Exceptions to a law can’t be made based on how late you were, or how over the limit you were, because this sets the precedent for the person who was a little later or a little more stoned than you were to ask for an exception because you got an exception. The law must have clearly defined rules. This is legal; this is not. This is the punishment that everyone else gets; this is the punishment that you get.

Furthermore, mandatory minimum sentences allow you to have a knowledge of what will happen if you break a given rule. In trials without these rules, you could go in with no idea of your sentence, or break a law without knowing the consequences. Mandatory minimums, on a purely rational level, let you know the consequences of your actions. Whether or not the Fed should be allowed to do this (can it ignore the judiciary branch’s rights?) or whether or not the specifics of these minimums should be changed (is crack really worse than cocaine?) or whether or not jails should be concerned about helping people make better choices (I’ll go there later)  or whether or not it is actually a cost effective deterrent (who the hell knows), the principle of letting people know what the consequences of their actions are and sticking to these consequences is not a bad one. In fact, it can be very helpful.

Moral of My Story



One Response to Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Oops.

  1. Nicely written. One point that’s missing is on the thoughts of recidivism.

    Return criminals generally have little to do with anger over their incarceration and a lot more to do with anger over their situation after it.

    The old belief (that still prevails) that criminals “do the time” and are then free is a lot of malarky. Today, once you’re a criminal, they label you a criminal for the rest of your life. Ask anyone who’s tried to get a job, go to school, or anything else once they’ve been arrested.

    In fact, once you’ve gone to jail or prison for any crime, especially drug crimes and felonies, you may as well have never graduated high school because the jobs you qualify for without a high school diploma are the same jobs you now qualify for now that you’re a convicted criminal.

    Expungement doesn’t happen either. In most states, it’s nearly impossible to get an expungement unless you have good political connections and a lot of money to spread around.

    These reasons are why recidivism is so high. Before being busted for theft or drugs or whatever, you likely faced the following choices: stay legitimate and make $7/hour at whatever crappy job you have or go into criminal enterprise and have a chance at much bigger income (tax free).

    After incarceration, your choices are basically the same. Except now you’ve probably got a probation officer to keep happy, community service to perform, fines to pay, and you likely walked out of jail with less than $50 to your name.

    I propose we return to the “clean slate” plan. If you’re convicted of a crime, you can have a choice: accept the full sentence and serve every day behind bars or take a lighter sentence and be released with probation and a record. If you accept the full sentence, when you leave jail/prison, you’re out of the system. Period. Full expungement, no probation/parole, nothing. You’re free.

    I guarantee that the more intelligent ones will accept the longer sentence and full freedom choice. Recidivism amongst those people will be very low.

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