Addressing Mandatory Minimums, Non-Violent Drug Offenses

America has a prison problem. As of 2020, nearly one out of every 100 Americans were incarcerated [1]. Nearly 63% of those incarcerated are serving sentences equal to or longer than ten years [2]. The issue of mass incarceration in America is due to many complex and intertwined factors and policies, with one such policy being mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

Mandatory minimum laws set a minimum duration of time in prison for a particular crime, depriving judges of the ability to consider a defendant’s specific circumstances when determining a sentence. These laws lead to and exacerbate issues of mass incarceration and recidivism—i.e., the tendency for prior offenders to re-offend—as well as place an exorbitant financial burden on American taxpayers—nearly $80 billion annually—in order to keep more people in prison longer [3]. Even the felony of drug possession, a non-violent crime with no victim, can lead to a minimum of one year to 25 years in prison in the state of Georgia [4]. This is made more significant during cases in which drug offenders have committed drug-related felonies prior, as the presence of these convictions can, in fact, increase the lower limit of the mandatory minimum sentence from one to five years, even for substances that are, in many cases, no more injurious to one’s health or to society than alcohol or tobacco [5,6]. 

The primary issue with mandatory minimum sentences is the idea that they promote deterrence [7]. This idea relies on the assumptions that potential offenders will both be aware of the mandatory minimum sentence as well as that said awareness will deter them from committing the crime; essentially, the primary principles are that maintaining both certainty and severity will reduce crime before it occurs. As it turns out, reality is not quite so cut-and-dry. In the decades since the re-implementation of mandatory minimum sentencing during then-President Ronald Reagan’s time in office, supply and demand rates for drugs have not seen a significant downturn, and the issue of mass incarceration has only worsened [9,10]. As of November of 2023, over 44% of federal inmates were imprisoned due to a drug conviction, and of those inmates, nearly 35% had minimal or no criminal history prior, making drug offenses the criminal category with the lowest average criminal history [11,12]. Given that the systematic incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders is notoriously ineffective at combating drug trafficking, use, and overdose deaths, it is clear that mandatory minimum sentencing only serves to keep more people in prison for longer. Some suggest that support for mandatory minimum sentencing may, in fact, be motivated at least in part by the cost incentives of cheap prison labor; incarcerated workers are paid close to pennies if anything at all, with seven states (including Georgia) lacking an established prison minimum wage [13]. The incarcerated workforce, comprising nearly 800,000 people, produces an estimated $11 billion annually in goods and services [14]. 

So, what is there to be done regarding this issue? Some have argued in favor of a complete federal abolishment of all mandatory minimum laws. Indeed, legislation repealing mandatory minimums was introduced into the House and Senate in 2017 and 2021, respectively, but neither of the bills have moved out of committee [15]. Though all fifty states continue to enforce and pass legislation in support of mandatory minimums, most states have begun to shift away from mandatory minimums and increasingly towards more holistic approaches to justice, such as drug courts, which also now exist in all fifty states [16,17]. Drug courts, with their emphasis on societal reintegration and prevention of recidivism following drug possession or addiction, have gained traction as an alternative to long prison sentences and should be utilized instead of criminal courts for nonviolent drug offenses [18]. When drug addiction is finally treated as the public health issue that it is rather than as a crime deserving imprisonment, only then will the issues of both mass incarceration and drug trafficking and addiction be effectively resolved. In addition to repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug-related offenses, Congress should make that change retroactive so that the scores of people spending time behind bars for nonviolent victimless crimes can be granted clemency and swiftly released, as well as have their records purged of those convictions. Decriminalizing drugs such as marijuana is another important step to take in the fight to end mass incarceration, as arrests for marijuana possession are unnecessary, expensive, and ineffective and lead to the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color despite drug use rates that are comparable between races [19,20].