Mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in North Carolina 20 years ago in an attempt to both standardize sentencing and to deter criminals from committing acts that would with certainty land them behind bars. By removing the possibility of punishments that essentially amount to slaps on the wrist, mandatory minimum sentences are intended to make habitual offenders think twice about committing other crimes, be they large or small, and to get dangerous criminals off the streets — or so went the logic of the program’s advocates.
Are mandatory minimum sentences worth the cost?
There are many critics of mandatory minimum sentences who attack the efficacy and fairness of the approach on a number of fronts. Some of the most cogent arguments against such sentencing requirements focus on what many see as a massive waste of taxpayer money, with around $80 billion dollars being spent each year on incarceration in the U.S. With nearly half of all federal inmates locked up for drug offenses, including convictions for possession of relatively small amounts of contraband, many Americans are tired of paying for a policy whose results seem negligible.
Powerful voices oppose mandatory minimum sentences
A major advocate for the drive to move away from mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for minor drug offenses, is U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who outlined his opposition at an address to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco. In his speech, Holder focused not only on the massive economic costs, but also on the inestimable human and moral costs associated with incarceration. Statistics reflect that while the U.S. represents five percent of the world population, its inmates make up a whopping 25 percent of prisoners worldwide, pointing to a culture that is perhaps transforming a segment of its society into permanent inmates.
Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences propose a number of alternative approaches that appeal to everyone from conservatives looking to save money to liberals advocating social justice. These solutions include:
Incarcerating fewer low-level offenders, specifically of drug crimes
Diverting drug offenders into treatment programs
Developing additional job training programs
Releasing well-behaved and elderly inmates early