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Feature: Poll Finds Broad Support for Doing Away with Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Nonviolent Offenders

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #553)
Politics & Advocacy

A poll released Wednesday by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) found broad support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and a majority who said they would vote for politicians who acted to end them. The poll results challenge the longstanding conventional wisdom that politicians need to be "tough on crime" to win elections.

federal courthouse, Alexandria, Virginia
According to the poll conducted by StrategyOne, an independent public opinion research firm, 78% thought the courts -- not Congress -- should determine how long people convicted of offenses should be imprisoned. Solid majorities also supported ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders (59%) and voting for congressional candidates who would act to end mandatory minimum sentencing (57%).

"Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear 'tough on crime' to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it's just not true," says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM. "Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines."

"This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are open to re-examining this issue and moving to a court-driven sentencing model," said Sparky Zivin, research director at StrategyOne.

"I am amazed that such a high number of people even understood the difference between Congress doing sentencing and the courts doing it," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that focuses on freeing federal drug war prisoners. "I didn't think that many people would agree, but it seems that the public has grasped that crime has been politicized. That leads me to believe we will probably see a much greater understanding of what's wrong with our punitive drug laws and what's wrong with prohibition."

The poll results show that while politicians largely remain wedded to the "tough on crime" philosophy and the notion that it helps them win elections, the public is going in a different direction, said Callahan. "It's very dramatic; it's astonishing," she said. "This is very far from what the politicians are thinking; we are seeing that there is a huge gap there."

overcrowded prisons
But even on Capitol Hill, there are a few voices calling for radical sentencing reform. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has, since his election in 2006, been leading the charge. Webb has already held two hearings on sentencing and drug policy issues and will hold a third next month.

"America is locking up people at astonishing rates. In the name of 'getting tough on crime,' there are now 2.2 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails and over 7 million under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole. We have the largest prison population in the world," said Webb in a statement included in FAMM's press release announcing the poll results. "This growth is not a response to increasing crime rates, but a reliance on prisons and long mandatory sentences as the common response to crime. It is time for America's leadership to realize what the public understands -- our approach is costly, unfair and impractical."

Webb is not alone. Even on the Republican side of the aisle, there are signs of support for sentencing reform. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) is one GOPer who is ready for change.

"Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines," said Inglis. "Mandatory minimums turn today's hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families."

In addition to releasing the poll results Wednesday, FAMM also released a comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons From the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which details how Congress created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in 1951 and repealed them in 1970 because the laws failed to stop drug abuse, addiction and trafficking. The politicians involved in overturning mandatory minimums in 1970 had no problem getting reelected, the report notes.

The report also looked at the rebirth of mandatory minimum sentencing in the fear-ridden 1980s and charts the ways they have been ineffective and counterproductive. According to the report, mandatory minimums:

  • Have not discouraged drug use in the United States.

  • Have not reduced drug trafficking.
  • Have created soaring state and federal corrections costs.
  • Impose substantial indirect costs on families by imprisoning spouses, parents, and breadwinners for lengthy periods.
  • Are not applied evenly, disproportionately impacting minorities and resulting in vastly different sentences for equally blameworthy offenders.
  • Undermine federalism by turning state-level offenses into federal crimes.
  • Undermine separation of powers by usurping judicial discretion.

"Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story. Republicans and Democrats alike don't want these laws. They don't work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can. Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn't just doable, it's doable right now," said Molly Gill, author of the report.

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the mid-1980s, when some of the most draconian mandatory minimum drug laws were passed. He has been working to undo them ever since.

"In 1986, we got stuck with some of the most punitive, least effective criminal sentencing laws ever created, said Sterling. "Mandatory minimums haven't stopped the drug trade. They haven't locked up the big dealers and importers. They're applied to small fries, not kingpins. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars to lock up a street-level dealer for 10 years when that money could be spent on treatment, drug courts, or going after the people bringing in boatloads of drugs every year. Getting rid of mandatory minimums is about getting our priorities straight."

"Mandatory minimums are among the worst criminal justice policies ever adopted in this country," said FAMM's Stewart. "They treat all offenders the same, when the most sacred principle of American sentencing law is that punishment should fit the individual and the crime. Repealing these laws isn't impossible -- it's been done before. The next Congress should do it again," she said.

FAMM's report offers two options for dealing with mandatory minimums: Repealing them outright while leaving federal sentencing guidelines in place, which would allow for judicial discretion, or expanding the "safety valve," under which judges can ignore mandatory minimums in some circumstances.

With the US economy and federal budget under unprecedented pressure, and with elections looming that could dramatically alter the political landscape, the time for radical sentencing reform may be drawing nigh, but reformers aren't counting their chickens just yet.

"There could be a window opening," said the November Coalition's Callahan. "I won't start holding my breath until we see how the elections play out, but we're working hard and preparing to work even harder the next four years."

While a poll isn't going to change the mind of Congress, she said, it creates an opening, both with politicians and the public at large. "With these numbers, I can think of a lot of new ways to talk to people," she said. "Activists tend to think that people don't get it, but this poll shows that people do get it, and now people are even more cynical about their leaders. This helps create a definite climate for achieving reform."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The mandatory minimum for a supposed crime,that harms,no-one,even the one accussed[in reference to pot.] is roughly equivilent to how the Sovit Union handled it's problems during the cold war...some drugs mainly those either man-made or altered are w/ doupt,dangerous,but unless a crime is actually involved should be handled on a medical level ,by medically trained people...this includes nicotine,and alcohol!!...canabis,/hemp etc should be legal,for recreation,for medicinal value and for commercial value,no matter whose toes are stepped on!! feelings...Don LaFace!!

Fri, 09/26/2008 - 12:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)


Plain and simple, the bottom has finally dropped out of the well that the prohibitionists thought was magically, eternally replenished. The latest financial news, with a catastrophic meltdown imminent, is slowly sinking into the American consciousness that previously had been of the impression that the system was indestructible. That same system that supported drug prohibition. A system that we can no longer afford.

Sadly, the basic immorality of the DrugWar in caging human beings for placing various substances in their bodies was only taken to task by civil libertarians; nobody else gave a damn, so long as they (falsely) thought they were unaffected.

Now, everyone will be feeling a pinch soon, and the need to reduce governmental budgetary expenses is becoming literally painfully obvious. It's either that or face rioting when you tell unemployed and desperate people that there's no money left for unemployment insurance to feed and house their kids because bureaucrats, cops, etc. need the money to keep those soon-to-be-hungry kids 'safe from druuuuuuugs'. Lead balloons have better chances for flying than that line will.

A pity that the DrugWar may be forced into retirement only because we can't afford it anymore, not because it is an abomination foisted on a supposedly free people that's been allowed to to savage their rights and liberties and needs to be abolished. And it's really bad that it will come at the price of what may become the Second Great Depression. But perhaps people will finally realize that because it was such an expensive boondoggle that took too many lives and too much treasure in a Quixotic quest for social engineering, they may be on guard in the future the next time some slimy bureaucrat or sociopathic political seeker offers to do something similar again.

Sat, 09/27/2008 - 9:16am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As long as law enforcement would rather lock away a person addicted to drugs rather than reform we will always have a problem. To some in law enforcement, sending someone to prison for drugs is a way to have a big story on how they are stopping drugs. This is not helping the problem. There are alternate to prison programs to educate a person in how to turn from drugs and they have a great success rate, but a big story on an addict sent to prison is like a career boost to some so they refuse to consider this option.

As for, mandatory minimums with a school zone, most people that have not studied this law think yes great. What the public does not know is that a school zone is not a school zone as the general public thinks of it. This law can cover so many things rather than just a school--in some cases it can even be a church. As I was told by one lawyer, you can call most areas in a city a school zone because of the definition of the school zone in this law. It is just when the DA wants to impose it.

I am not putting down law enforcement, I am just saying the attitude of some needs to change. We need to try reform rather than just sending to prison and then releasing them without ever giving them the tools they need to recover from the addiction.

Fri, 11/28/2008 - 1:18am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to know how many inmates,from each prison ,is going to get realeased early

Fri, 03/06/2009 - 12:14am Permalink

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