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Mandatory Minimum Sentences

What Are MMS?

Federal mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) are criminal penalties that are based on a formula determined solely by the weight of the drugs, or the presence of a firearm during a felony offense. The prisoner must serve at least 85% of this sentence, and there is no parole available. The only way to get a sentence reduction is through acting as an informant against others, including one’s confidants, friends and family.

The sentences are mandatory in that judges must impose them, regardless of the defendant’s role in the offense, his culpability, likelihood of rehabilitation, or any other mitigating factors.

Many states have adopted similar mandatory minimum sentences, and the international community is also now lowering its standards of excessive cruelty to that of the US.

If you would like to do something about this injustice, your help is needed. An organization dedicated to reform of these penalties is Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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How Did We Get Into This MMS?

This is America’s second experiment in 50 years with mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violators.

  • 1951 Congress passed the Boggs Act, which imposed MMS.
  • 1956 The Boggs Act was modified to further toughen these sentences, including terms of 5, 10, and 15 years for drug offenses.
  • Late 1960s By this time it became manifestly clear that the mandatory minimums were failing. Congress found that drug use was increasing, prisons were overflowing, and the judicial branch was ineffective because of its inflexibility.
  • 1970 Almost all MMS were repealed.

Unfortunately, that was not the last we heard of MMS. In the 1980s the drug issue became a media epidemic. In the election year of 1986, crack was in the headlines of all American papers, and a top rated TV show about chasing drug traffickers, Miami Vice. The cocaine-related deaths of athletes Len Bias and Don Rogers within one week was the final impetus to set Congress into motion.

  • 1986 Despite the fact that a separate commission was developing standard sentencing guidelines, Congress passed a new set of MMS to prove it was “tough on crime” and “tough on drugs”.
  • 1994 Congress enacted a “Safety Valve” provision that allows federal judges to exempt certain non-violent, first-time offenders from mandatory minimum penalties. This provision is not retroactive. Therefore, it did not cahnge sentences imposed before its effective date.

These are roughly the same MMS that we have today. In an eerie parallel to the late 1960s, the Sentencing Commission found in 1991 that the judiciary has been weakened by MMS and that prison overcrowding is rising. But Congress seems as unable to learn from its own mistakes as it is to learn from history.

 Federal Mandatory Minimums (MMS)
for First-Time Drug OffendersDrug Type of Substance__________________LSDMarijuana Crack CocainePowder CocaineHeroinMethamphetamine5 YearsNo parole
_________1 gram100 plants or100 kilos5 grams500 grams100 grams5 grams10 YearsNo parole
_________10 grams1000 plants or1000 kilos50 grams5 kilos1kilo50 gramsOther Mandatory Minimum SentencesOffense 
________________________Possession of a gun
Armed Career Criminal ActContinuing Criminal EnterpriseLength of Sentence 
_____________________________5 years (added to drug sentence)
during a drug offense15 years (Felon in possession of a gun)20 years

MMS Are Costly Socially

The less calculable costs of the Drug War are in human damage caused to those imprisoned for unduly long periods of time, and to their families. Women and children truly bear the brunt of the Drug War. Women are the “hidden body count” and children are the “unseen victims.” Children of prisoners lose one or both of their parents, forcing them to fend for themselves, to be taken in by relatives, or to live in foster homes. Brothers and sisters are often separated from each other in the breakup of their families.

Asset forfeitures seize family homes, cars, and savings, leaving many families homeless with no transportation and no money.

Too often, young children watch in terror as DEA agents break down the front door of their family home, throw their parents to the floor and aim guns at their heads, shouting curses at them. The children themselves are frequently kept at gun point for hours.

  • In 1978, the number of imprisoned parents was 21,000. By 1990, it had risen to 1,000,000 (one million).
  • Since mandatory minimums were enacted, the number of women inmates has tripled. The majority of these women are first-time, nonviolent, low-level offenders.
  • Over 80% of the female prisoners in the United States are mothers, and 70% of these are single parents.

These kinds of incarcerations may be sowing the seeds for a new generation of inmates. Studies show that, relative to the general population, inmates are more than twice as likely to have grown up in a single parent family, and that half the juveniles in state and local jails have an immediate family member who is a felon.

With so much talk in Congress about “Family Values,” one might expect to see some concern about the destruction of the family unit which is caused by the Drug War . not its mindless escalation.

MMS Are Costly Financially

  • The average cost of incarcerating a federal inmate is $23,000 per year. (FAMM, Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform, March, 1997)
  • About 60% of federal inmates – 65,697 people! – are drug offenders. Half of these are first time, non-violent offenders. (Bureau of Prisons, testimony)
  • To feed, clothe, house and guard these 65,697 prisoners costs taxpayers $4.14 million per day, or $1.51 billion annually.
  • Each year, the portion of your tax dollars that goes to support federal prisoners grows faster than any other federal expenditure, including education, defense, the environment, transportation and social security.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons budget has grown 1,400% since the enactment of mandatory minimums in 1986. The budget jumped from $220 million in 1986 to $3.19 billion in 1997. (Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook, National Drug Control Strategy, 1997)
  • It costs more to send a person to prison for four years than it does to send him to a private university for four years, including tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies. (Bureau of Prisons)

If you would like to do something about this waste of money, your help is needed. An organization dedicated to reform of these penalties is Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Mandatory Minimums Are Arbitrary

Possession of 4.99 grams of crack is punishable with no more than one year in prison; possession of 5.01 grams of crack is subject to a mandatory minimum of five years. These “sentencing cliffs”, as they are known, create absurd disparities in sentencing, yet there is no way for judges to circumvent them.

Furthermore, because of the way the law is written, a drug is defined as any mixture which contains a drug, which can result in even more absurd sentencing. For instance, mandatory minimums for LSD are calculated using the weight of the carrier medium, such as blotter paper. Hence, the accused may face more time in prison for the paper than for the actual drug.

Mandatory Minimums Are Unjust

Mandatory minimum sentences undermine the basic tradition of justice that Americans have enjoyed for 200 years – that the punishment fit the crime.

Judges are only allowed to consider the weight of the drug in sentencing. Judges are not allowed to consider any of the following factors:

  • The nature and circumstances of the offense
  • The history and character of the defendant
  • The need for the sentence to deter further criminal conduct
  • The need for the sentence to protect the public
  • Alternative sentencing options
  • The need to avoid sentence disparities with similar defendants.

By preventing judges from considering these factors MMS straightjackets the judge, forcing him or her to tear the “just” out of “criminal justice”.

Mandatory Minimums Are
Racially Discriminatory and Excessive

Mandatory minimum sentences are discriminatory in application. They create sentencing disparities based on race. Studies show that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to receive MMS more often than whites charged for the same crime.

MMS are structurally discriminatory

It takes 100 times more cocaine in powder form than cocaine in crack form to receive a MMS, despite the fact that the two drugs are almost identical, both in terms of chemistry and physiological effects. As it happens, crack is predominantly used by blacks, while powder is more often used by whites. In several cases, DEA agents have actually exploited this distinction and forced dealers to cook powder cocaine into crack in order to ensure a lengthy MMS.

MMS Are Counterproductive

The intended goal of mandatory minimum sentences was to punish those who were most responsible for the drug trade, the “kingpins”. The only way to avoid a mandatory minimum is to provide substantial assistance to the prosecutor in exchange for a reduction in sentence. Unlike the organizer, the minor player seldom has valuable information to trade for a lower sentence.

This is one of the reasons why Chief Justice William Rehnquist described MMS as a good example of the “law of unintended consequences”.

According to findings by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, low level participants receive MMS more often than top-level importers.

Call your elected federal officials and demand that Mandatory Minimum Sentences be ended.

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Author, cannabis expert witness, journalist, artist