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How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration

Mandatory minimums were supposed to help crack down on drug crime in the '80s. But they've had huge unintended consequences:

These statutes dictate specific prison terms for certain crimes deemed uniquely harmful to society. By design, they bar judges from using discretion during sentencing. Minimums have been around since America’s founding, but the most consequential ones were erected in the 1980s in response to the ravages of the inner-city drug trade. The idea was to establish uniformly stringent punishments to both deter drug offenses and lock away kingpins. And a central feature of this framework was the now-infamous minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine violations.

The US government created a 100-to-1 minimum sentence disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The US government created a 100-to-1 minimum sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Joe Posner / Vox

In the US, crack consumption is tied to income, and income is tied to race. So this arbitrary sentencing disparity has forced courts to punish black Americans much more harshly than white Americans for basically the exact same crime. As a result, tens of thousands of young men, most of whom are black, have been snatched up by law enforcement on low-level drug offenses and thrown into prison for mandatory terms that make a mockery of any sense of proportionality. This situation is so absurd that it's sparked the formation of a reform coalition composed of the most unlikely of allies, including the Koch brothers, the NAACP, Newt Gingrich, the American Civil Liberties Union, Sen. Rand Paul, and the Obama White House.

Fortunately, policymakers have started injecting some common sense into the minimums regime. A landmark 2005 Supreme Court decision afforded federal judges some leeway to stray from dictated terms. A major federal criminal justice package passed in 2010 eliminated minimums for simple crack possession and dramatically ratcheted back the crack-powder sentencing disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And President Obama recently wielded the executive commutation power to pardon 46 people serving excessive mandatory terms for nonviolent drug offenses. But the US still has a long way to go to make sentencing fair.


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