Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that federal policies are changing, signaling the end of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders. Mandatory minimums have been a controversial aspect of criminal sentencing since the 1980s spawned the "war on drugs."
Up until this announcement, federal prosecutors were required by law to sentence federal drug offenders to mandatory minimum prison sentences. This has resulted in an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since the 1980s. Whether these mandatory minimums have helped decrease the overall crime rate is hotly debated.
Mandatory minimums were originally instituted so that politicians and lawmakers could show that they took a tough stance on crime. This concept originates back to the Nixon era but was even more popularized in the 1980s. The mandatory minimums have resulted in low-level and nonviolent drug offenders serving the same sentences as violent and repeat felony offenders.
According to Holder, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason. While the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."
The end to mandatory minimums has become a bipartisan effort. Not only do these laws increase the population in the already over-crowded prison system, but they also do little to prevent crime. New federal sentencing policies will offer drug treatment and community service as alternatives to imprisonment.
Holder also holds a popular, yet controversial, point of view that mandatory minimums for drug offenders perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration particularly for those in lower socioeconomic groups. He believes that, not only are most federal drug sentences far too lengthy, but they also do little to ensure that the offender will not recidivate. For example, many felony offenders who are released cannot vote or gain employment.
National crime rates have taken an overall dip over the past few years in urban areas, which may aid in positive public opinion over the change. When drug crime rates were high and even referred to as "the number one threat to our national safety," it would have been difficult to take a stance that, on the surface, does not seem tough on crime.
The United States imprisons more of its population that most other countries. This country is home to five percent of the entire world population, and yet it incarcerates nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners. Holder, and many others, believe it is far past time for a change. Many nonviolent low-level drug offenders who are currently in prison may be able to get their sentences lifted pending federal review.