chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
April 01, 2009

Let’s Abolish Mandatory Minimums: The Punishment Must Fit the Crime

by Molly M. Gill

The use of mandatory minimum sentences is an ongoing human rights violation in America. These one-size-fits-all sentencing statutes that were intended to deter crime and punish big-time criminals often backfire, giving drug addicts and small-time offenders enormous sentences. Mandatory sentences usually apply to drug and gun offenses. Examples include a five-year sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine or a ten-year sentence for firing a gun in connection with a drug trafficking offense. But the “three strikes” laws are the most notorious cases in point. When Leandro Andrade stole $153 worth of videotapes, he received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for fifty years because the crime was his third felony conviction. The judge could not adjust the sentence to reflect the minor nature of the crime or Andrade’s unique circumstances. (He was an Army veteran, a father of three, a drug addict, and his previous convictions were for nonviolent property crimes.) The Supreme Court later rejected Andrade’s claims that his sentence violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003).

Yet, as Andrade shows, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences violate two basic human rights principles.

First, they result in cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishments. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences are cruel, inhumane, and degrading because they obliterate individualized justice, the bedrock of any fair sentencing system. Instead of considering all the circumstances of the crime and the individual offender, the court must impose a lengthy predetermined sentence created by a legislature that knows nothing about the particulars of the offense or the defendant. Offenders go to sentencing hearings justifiably expecting to be treated like individuals. Mandatory minimums replace the individual in the sentencing equation with one or two factorsСdrug type and weight, or whether the crime is a third strikeСthat are poor substitutes for blameworthiness. They fail to account for the nature of the crime or the offender’s mental state, criminal history, or role in the offense, essential factors in determining how much punishment is deserved. The inevitable result is cruel, inhumane, degrading, and undeserved overpunishment.

Second, mandatory minimums produce sentences that are disproportionate to the crime. There are indeed times when the mandatory sentence best fits the crime. If an offender has two prior armed robberies, a fifty-years-to-life sentence may be perfectly appropriate for a third strike involving premeditated murder. But what if, as in Andrade, it isn’t? Mandatory minimums make getting a proportionate sentence a matter of luck, not a matter of justice.

Mandatory minimums are tied to charges, so the same sentence applies every time a conviction is won, even if the actual crimes are unique. Judges must ignore important circumstances of the crimeСWas a victim harmed? Was a gun used?Сand look only to the charged crime of which the defendant is convicted. Because prosecutors decide what that charge will be, they also decide what the minimum sentence will be.

Disproportionate mandatory sentences have become the rule rather than the exception, especially in large drug conspiracies. This is particularly problematic because mandatory drug sentences are triggered by the weight and type of the drug involved, and drug weights are poor indicators of culpability. In the federal system, just 50 grams of crack cocaineСabout the weight of a candy bar, hardly a kingpin quantityСwill trigger a ten-year mandatory prison sentence, even for a first-time, nonviolent offender. In drug conspiracies, so-called “relevant conduct” rules make all coconspirators equally liable for all the drugs involved, making it impossible for judges to distinguish between major dealers and street-level sellers, or between kingpins and their girlfriends. Better-informed, big-time players can also agree to plead guilty and trade their knowledge for a sentence below the mandatory minimum, whereas their less knowledgeable underlings cannot. Paradoxically, the small fish frequently get the harshest sentences.

While the Supreme Court has not budged from its position in Lockyer v. Andrade upholding a mandatory minimum sentence of fifty years to life for stealing a few videotapes, increasing numbers of jurists, advocates, and policymakers are realizing that justice is only served when the punishment fits the crime.

Molly M. Gill

Molly M. Gill is the director of Special and Legal Projects for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization created in 1991 to repeal mandatory minimum sentences at the state and federal level.