By Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Policy Center. She will discuss drug policy reform during two panel discussions at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference this week.
For a quarter of a century mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in egregiously severe and harsh punishments which often do not fit the crime, have racially disparate outcomes, increase overcrowding, and exacerbate prison costs. These sentences are the result of a war on drugs that has been disproportionately fought in Black and Latino communities. The impact of the war on drugs on individuals, families, and communities has been likened to a “new Jim Crow,” resulting in the mass incarceration and over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system.
As a quick reminder: A mandatory minimum sentence is a prison term predetermined by Congress and automatically imposed for certain crimes, primarily drugs and firearms. It is the minimum penalty that a judge must impose. In most cases the sentence is at least five years, and often it is 10, 15, or 20 years or more, even for nonviolent first time offenders.
One of the problems with inflexible mandatory sentencing laws is that they are applied regardless of the role of the defendant and of other factors, which judges traditionally take into account for sentencing, such as the history and characteristics of the defendant and the likelihood of rehabilitation.