Criminal Defense in Orange County

Major Federal Policy Change: Is This the End to Mandatory Minimums?

The "war on drugs" is taking a drastic change of course. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that federal prosecutors will no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. The primary reason stated was to reduce the federal prison population, although there are many other ramifications.

Holder stated that thousands of drug offenders are sent to state and federal prison with no good law enforcement reason. These mandatory minimums were put in place by politicians and lawmakers who wanted to take a tough stance on drugs in what is commonly referred to as the "war on drugs." Unfortunately, these mandatory minimums may not have done more than severely increase the already over-crowded prison population.

Holder added that while strict enforcement of federal drug laws was an absolute necessity, prosecution and incarceration alone are not enough to foster a safer nation. Holder, and many others, take the stance that these strict sentencing laws perpetuate a vicious cycle that is all too common in poor, crime-ridden communities.

Most often, mandatory minimum sentences hurt low-income and minority households. For example, lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes often leave children to be raised in single-parent homes. Children raised in these types of environments are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. This begs the question, does the end goal of eradicating "the drug problem" really justify the means?

The term "war on drugs" dates back as far as the Nixon administration, although it became heavily popularized in the 1980s. It was during this time that a series of laws were passed to require judges to impose long sentences for any and all individuals arrested and charged with illegal drug offenses. In exchange for lengthy prison sentences, low-level drug offenders may now be presented with community service and drug rehabilitation programs as alternative modes of sentencing.

The United States is one of the most incarcerated nations in the world. Although our country is home to only five percent of the world's population, we have nearly a quarter of the world's prison population. Since the 1980s when these mandatory minimum laws were passed, the federal prison population has increased by a shocking 800 percent.

Proponents of the end to mandatory minimum laws cite Texas and New York as models to look to for change. Both states have already begun in their efforts to reduce overly-harsh sentences for low-level drug offenders. In California, the state has also voted to amend the "Three Strikes Law" for violent, third felony offenses. Many offenders who were previously sentenced under these mandatory minimum laws may be able to go home on early release pending federal review.