Opinion: Mandatory minimums slowing America’s battle with narcotics

By Henry Lang-VanDerLaan

Our nation has been waging a war on drugs over the past three decades. We have created a new branch of law enforcement, The Drug Enforcement Agency, purely to help fight illegal narcotics in this nation.

The United States has also fought the war on drugs with harsh penalties for anyone associated with drugs. Many of the laws involving drug possession have mandatory minimum sentencing, which set minimum punishments for particular offenses. But despite these harsh laws, drugs are still prevalent in America today.

According to the Washington Post, since 1980, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased by 2,100 percent. This is mostly attributed to mandatory minimums. But as drugs continue to be a force in America, it is time for our nation to end these laws.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. The issue with these laws is that they are inflexible and do not allow judges to take into account other circumstances pertaining to the case.

For instance, many, almost 1 in 3 according to the United States Sentencing Commission, of the drug offenders who have been subject to mandatory minimum sentencing have been non-violent criminals with no criminal record.

However, the law dictates that these criminals must be sentenced to jail even on a first offense. The issue being that many of these offenders are only using drugs and not distributing drugs. This means that we are not treating addiction and are instead punishing people for being addicted to highly addictive substances.

Mandatory minimums were put in place to stop the distribution of drugs. Unfortunately, the laws have only been successful in getting the street dealers into federal prisons and not drug kingpins.

What this means is that although law enforcement continues to place drug dealers in jail, the drugs are still available on the street. In other words, mandatory minimums are removing the proverbial weeds by their top, not the root. While our already overly crowded prison system rises in population, there is still an abundance of narcotics available in America.

Another issue is that the punishments enforced by mandatory minimums seem to target minorities in two different ways; minorities are far more likely to be the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing and the harsher punishments target drugs far more common among minorities.

According to table 8-1 of the USSC 2011 report on drug sentencing, 80 percent of all citizens who were subjects of mandatory sentencing were of African-American or Hispanic descent. Only 18 percent of cases that imposed the minimums were for white offenders.

The interesting part is that of all federal drug offenders in this country, 70 percent are either Hispanic or Black and 26.2 percent are White.

This is a huge discrepancy in sentencing. Not only are minorities far more likely than the majority to be convicted of drug offenses, they are also far more likely to be convicted of charges worthy of mandatory minimums.

The laws regarding crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine target minorities, many of whom have lower incomes. These two substances are chemically the same, the only difference being in their form and demographic.

Crack-cocaine is a solid rock that cost less, and is predominantly used by people with lower incomes. Powder-cocaine is more expensive and purchased more by an affluent demographic.

However, the amount of each narcotic needed to invoke a mandatory minimum sentence is very different. To be sentenced for a minimum of five years and a maximum of 40 years, one would need to have been convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder-cocaine.

On the other hand, to invoke the same mandatory minimum and maximum, with the exact same substance in hard form, one would only need to be convicted of possessing 28 grams.

The drug used predominantly by lower income Americans has the same sentence for 17.9 times less of virtually the same substance wealthier drug offenders commonly use. It should come as no surprise that lower income offenders are far more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentencing with laws so skewed.

For these reasons, mandatory minimums must be eliminated from our laws against drugs. We, as a nation, have tried to be harsh on drugs, but it has not succeeded. These laws are failing to remove drugs from the street, harming minority populations, and increasing our prison population.

If our nation wants to continue to fight drugs, we must take a new approach because mandatory minimums have proven to fail in a plethora of ways.

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