Mandatory Minimum Sentences are Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Two decades ago it was not uncommon for Americans to believe they had one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. Unfortunately, with the enormous drug trade coming to a pinnacle and the effects of drugs on more and more suburban youth, the government felt a desperate measure had to be taken. In the mid-1980’s congress passed a series of strict laws to keep illegal drugs off the street. What they did not know was how inhumane, cost ineffective and unconstitutional these laws would be. Welcome to the world of mandatory minimums.
Since the Anti Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986, the United States has been using a system of ‘mandatory minimum’ sentences which is a strict guideline for judges’ sentencing decisions. When a person is convicted of a crime in this country, their criminal history is examined and they are given criminal history points according to guidelines set forth by the federal government. Their offense is also assigned a severity rating by another set of guidelines. A judge, when determining that person's sentence, does not need to use his own discretion, he just looks up the sentence on the chart and off they go to prison. In fact, the judge is not allowed to adjust the sentence on the chart downward, unless that person assists the government in taking other drug offenders off of the streets. This was attributed to a young basketball star by the name of Len Bias. Mr. Bias was the Boston Celtics top pick in the 1986 draft. To celebrate he and a few friends tried smoking crack. Unfortunately, Len had a heart attack and died two days later. This brought shock to Capitol Hill and within 6 months President Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Laws into effect.
Federal mandatory minimums have made a bad situation worse. In large part because the rigid minimums make no distinction among circumstances of cases, today’s sentences for non-violent crimes lack any semblance of balance. If a man helps unload a boat of marijuana just once to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments (an actual case), he is subject to the same minimum sentence as the mastermind of the whole scheme. As a prime example of the irrationality of mandatory minimums, we should consider the sentencing disparity for users of...