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The Weekly Abolitionist: The Pernicious Consequences of Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum sentences have been receiving a fair bit of scrutiny lately, largely due to the efforts of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). And rightly so. Mandatory minimums remove discretion and context from sentencing, resulting in grossly unjust and wildly disproportionate sentences for minor offenses. Moreover, they’ve caused some troubling shifts in who has discretionary power in the criminal justice system, and they’ve been a driving force behind racial disparities in incarceration.

In April, the National Research Council released a report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United StatesExploring Causes and Consequences. The report explains many of the reasons incarceration rates have increased so dramatically in the United States, and analyzes the consequences of mass incarceration. 

The report largely ascribes the growth of America’s prison population to changes in sentencing policies. Until the 1970’s, the federal and state governments employed a system of “indeterminate sentencing,” in which “sentencing was to be individualized and judges had wide discretion” (72). But over the next few decades, America’s sentencing laws changed drastically. The report identifies three phases of this shift. During the first phase, from “1975 to the mid-1980s, the reform movement aimed primarily to make sentencing procedures fairer and sentencing outcomes more predictable and consistent. The problems to be solved were “racial and other unwarranted disparities,” and the mechanisms for solving it were various kinds of comprehensive sentencing and parole guidelines and statutory sentencing standards.” These changes were designed with liberal goals in mind, and often featured “population constraints” to control the growth of prison populations. The second phase, however, was far more punitive. “The second phase, from the mid-1980s through 1996, aimed primarily to make sentences for drug and violent crimes harsher and their imposition more certain. The principal mechanisms to those ends were mandatory minimum sentence, three strikes, truth-in-sentencing, and life without possibility of parole laws.” The authors characterize the third phase as a “period of drift” with relatively few increases in punitive policies (73).

The authors primarily blame the prison population’s growth on this second phase. They note that “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which require prisoners to serve a minimum percentage of their sentence before being released on parole, substantially increased prison populations. Citing research from the Urban Institute, the authors note that “When implemented as part of a comprehensive change to the sentencing system, “truth-in-sentencing laws were associated with large changes in prison populations”” (80). These laws primarily increase prison populations over the long term. The authors quote Spelman, who notes “Truth-in-sentencing laws have little immediate effect but a substantial long-run effect. This analysis makes sense: Truth-in-sentencing laws increase time served and reduce the number of offenders released in future years; the full effect would only be observed after prisoners sentenced under the old regime are replaced by those sentenced under the new law.”  Because these laws only show their full effects in the long term, many studies understate their impact on incarceration rates. “The Urban Institute, Vera, and RAND studies underestimate the effects of truth-in-sentencing laws on prison population growth because they cover periods ending, respectively, in 1996-1998 (for Ohio), 2002, and 1997. Mandatory minimum sentence, truth-in-sentencing, and three strikes laws requiring decades-long sentences inevitably have a “sleeper” effect,” the report notes (82).

In addition to expanding the prison population, these sentencing policies put a lot of discretion in the hands of prosecutors. The authors note that “Two centuries of experience has shown that mandatory punishments foster circumvention by prosecutors, juries, and judges and thereby produce inconsistencies among cases (Romilly, 1820; Reekie, 1930; Hay, 1975; Tonry, 2009b). Problems of circumvention and inconsistent application have long been documented and understood.” While mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, and other mandatory punishments were designed to produce more standardized, consistent, and certain punishment, they can actually have the opposite impact. The authors provide specific examples of how this operates:

“Legislative prescription of a high mandatory sentence for certain offenders is likely to result in a reduction in charges at the prosecution stage, or if this is not done, by a refusal of the judge to convict at the adjudication stage. The issue…thus is not solely whether certain offenders should be dealt with severely, but also how the criminal justice system will accommodate to the legislative charge” (Remington, 1969, p. xvii). Newman (1966, p. 179) describes how Michigan judges dealt with a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence for drug sales: “Mandatory minimums are almost universally disliked by trial judges…. The clearest illustration of routine reductions is provided by reduction of sale of narcotics to possession or addiction…. Judges … actively participated in the charge reduction process to the extent of refusing to accept guilty pleas to sale and liberally assigning counsel to work out reduced charges.” Newman (1966, p. 182) tells of efforts to avoid 15-year mandatory maximum sentences: “In Michigan conviction of armed robbery or breaking and entering in the nighttime (fifteen-year maximum compared to five years for daytime breaking) is rare. The pattern of downgrading is such that it becomes virtually routine, and the bargaining session becomes a ritual. The real issue in such negotiations is not whether the charge will be reduced but how far, that is, to what lesser offense” (Newman, 1966, p. 182). Dawson (1969, p. 201) describes “very strong” judicial resistance to a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for the sale of narcotics: “Charge reductions to possession or use are routine. Indeed, in some cases, judges have refused to accept guilty pleas to sale of narcotics, but have continued the case and appointed counsel with instructions to negotiate a charge reduction.” (78-79)

This has a variety of consequences. It erodes the deterrence that is supposed to come with harsher sentencing. But perhaps more importantly, “Mandatory punishments transfer dispositive discretion in the handling of cases from judges, who are expected to be nonpartisan and dispassionate, to prosecutors, who are comparatively more vulnerable to influence by political considerations and public emotion” (79). In addition to putting leniency in the hands of prosecutors, harsher sentences enable prosecutors to secure convictions without due process, as they can stack charges in order to coerce defendants into accepting plea bargains.

These harsher sentences also play a key role in producing racial disparities. The report summarizes the literature on racial bias at various points in the criminal justice process, including bias against black people who match particular stereotypes. While this racism is clearly present, the authors argue it is statistically small compared to the impact of sentencing policies. They argue that, “The reason for increased racial disparities in imprisonment relative to arrests is straightforward: severe sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s greatly increased the lengths of prison sentences mandated for violent crimes and drug offenses for which blacks are disproportionately often arrested” (96).

If social science had played a leading role in policy discussions, these harsh sentencing laws would likely have been seen as undesirable when they were proposed. Unfortunately, “consideration of social science evidence has had little influence on legislative policy-making processes concerning sentencing and punishment in recent decades. The consequences of this disconnect have contributed substantially to contemporary patterns of imprisonment. Evidence on the deterrent effects of mandatory minimum sentence laws is just one such example. Two centuries of experience with laws mandating minimum sentences for particular crimes have shown that those laws have few if any effects as deterrents to crime and, as discussed above, foster patterns of circumvention and manipulation by prosecutors, judges, and juries” (90). It’s predictable that the state would ignore social science evidence. Voters are rationally ignorant, as the cost of studying relevant social science exceeds the benefits to voters of understanding issues. But worse still, as Byran Caplan documents in The Myth of the Rational Voter, voters are rationally irrational. That is, it is instrumentally rational for them to persist in irrational biases that are directly counter to social science, rather than simply being ignorant and agnostic.

The harsh sentences passed during the 1980s and 1990s have been extraordinarily destructive. They have shifted more power into the hands of prosecutors, undermined proportionality, exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and played a key role in bringing us an America that incarcerates more people than any  other nation on earth.

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