Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Second Thoughts About Preset Prison Terms

The U.S. has more prisoners than any other country. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses about a fifth of all convicts. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, immigration violations and other offenses have left American prisons filled with low-level offenders serving long terms. The nation’s federal inmate population, which costs taxpayers $80 billion a year, more than doubled over the past two decades even as the number of violent crimes per capita declined by nearly 47 percent.

The Situation

The U.S. government’s release of about 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison in late October and early November after the U.S. Sentencing Commission retroactively reduced their sentences has trimmed that population. It crested at nearly 220,000 in 2013 before starting what is now a two-year decline. Some future inmates will benefit from the commission’s reductions in penalties for federal drug violations. However, repeat or major offenders will continue to face mandatory minimums. President Barack Obama said in July 2015 that long mandatory minimum sentences should be shortened or eliminated. His remarks reflected a growing bipartisan consensus that inflexible punishments, once popular with politicians, take a toll on taxpayers, communities and families of the incarcerated. Obama also stressed the disproportionate impact of the laws on racial minorities. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to blunt the impact of mandatory minimums by charging minor criminals with offenses for which the accompanying sentences matched their actual conduct. Bills introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would eliminate minimums for certain drug offenses, expand eligibility for exemptions and allow federal courts to disregard the mandatory minimums when they conflict with general sentencing standards, which take into account such factors as the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s specific role in it.  A debate about mandatory minimums is also taking place in Australia.

The Background

Mandatory minimum punishments for serious federal offenses are as old as the republic. Under the 1790 Crimes Act, the required sentence for treason, murder, piracy and forgery of government securities was death. Later, infractions with baseline punishments touched on slavery, the manufacture and sale of alcohol and, in the 1980s as crime rates rose, drugs. The discretion of judges was further limited in 1987 when a set of federal sentencing guidelines were put in place to curb the disparity in punishments for the same offenses in different regions of the U.S. These guidelines, in conjunction with mandatory minimums, were seen as leading to longer sentences. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing guidelines could be no more than advisory, but mandatory minimums were unaffected by the decision. America’s prison population continued to grow even as violent crime declined.

The Argument

Advocates for change say mandatory minimums are crude instruments of justice, one-way ratchets that create punishments too harsh for charged offenses. Racial minorities and the poor, they note, are incarcerated disproportionately. Defenders argue that a retreat from clearly defined sentencing will produce an increase in violent crime or a return to sentencing disparities.

The Reference Shelf

  • Text of President Obama’s call for reform of the U.S. justice system.
  • In a report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission concludes that the system of mandatory minimum penalties “can be improved.”
  • A Families Against Mandatory Minimums fact sheet summarizes its advocacy case.
  • A PBS Frontline primer details specific sentences mandated for drug possession and includes statistics on prison sentences and asset forfeitures.
  • A law professor who served on the Sentencing Commission argues that mandatory sentences were once effective but have outlived their usefulness.
  • Article on the Outside the Beltway website about how prosecutors use the threat of mandatory sentences to coerce guilty pleas.

First published March 3, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Andrew M Harris in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at