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Mandatory minimums for drug crimes are going away

Readers who follow criminal justice matters may know that the Obama Administration has slowly moved toward reducing the use of sentencing guidelines. They may also be aware that these guidelines, such as mandatory minimum sentences, frequently put people in prison for years, even if they were not convicted of a violent offense.

What readers may not be aware of is that states have quietly been rolling back mandatory minimums for some offenses, especially low-level offenses like nonviolent drug crimes. Michigan is among the states who have decided that stuffing people into prison is not an effective or just public safety strategy. A total of 29 states have eased up on mandatory minimum since 2000.

Before that, as part of an effort to “get tough” on crimes such as drug trafficking, lawmakers created mandatory minimum sentences. These took much of the traditional discretion away from judges when it comes to sentencing, in an effort to make sure that more offenders were locked up for a long time, regardless of the circumstances of their individual cases.

Michigan eliminated mandatory minimums in 2002. Since then, the state has been able to close 20 prisons and cut spending on correctional facilities by 8.9 percent.

Federal officials have been slower to recognize the problems with mandatory minimums, but things are changing. Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines for the use of these requirements in low-level non-violent cases. Congress is also considering easing these guidelines. Early this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would end mandatory minimums in some cases, and retroactively apply some reforms that have already been enacted.

It appears that the idea that sentencing guidelines, with the concurrent upsurge in the U.S. prison population, are a poor allocation of resources is becoming increasingly mainstream. Perhaps more emphasis on drug addiction treatment in the future would prove to be a more effective strategy to reducing the drug problem.

Source: Time, “States Lead The Way on Sentencing Reform,” Maya Rhodan, Feb. 14, 2014

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