Prison overcrowding and tax payer burdens are just two of the effects that must be addressed with mandatory sentencing reform. There must also be a consideration for balancing the deterrence factor with an offender's increased attempts to avoid detection and arrest if there is to be any measurable effect on societal burden and criminal justice through reform. Moreover, prisons are far from the ideal corrective and rehabilitative centers that they are purported as by proponents of mandatory minimum sentencing, and can either continue of worsen an individual's criminal tendencies. Without considering the effects that are seen with the current sentencing policy, it would be difficult to justify considering reform and even more difficult to enact reform. By reviewing the data and information on the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing, one can see the connections to the flaws in the system and the need for reform. The criminal justice system as a whole needs the ability to adjust to the current criminal situation faster than the criminals are adjusting their mode of operation.
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Reform for Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that removed a judge's power to impose a sentence surfaced in the 1960's and 1970's due to sentencing disparities stemming from unrestrained power, leniency, negative bias and little guidance on appropriate punishment. Mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were established mostly to maintain consistency within the criminal justice system, but have instead removed power from judges and placed it in the prosecutor's hands. This shift of power has not proven to be a deterrent in sentencing disparities but instead has caused a negative impact on the American criminal justice system and should be amended to place some sentencing discretion back into the hands of the judge.
There are currently two bills with bipartisan support that are under consideration and are attempting to help support the reforming of current sentencing policy: the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would apply to all federal mandatory minimums, and the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would apply to federal mandatory minimums for only drug offenses (Bernick & Larkin, 2014). The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 would place some sentencing leniency at the judge's discretion when it is deemed that public safety would not be placed in jeopardy (Wing, 2013). The Smarter Sentencing Act addresses the issue of relatively minor drug offenses that receive decidedly harsh sentences under the current regulation. While these bills are a step in the right direction, it is difficult to predict their impact and effects on the criminal justice system without also considering other factors that could contribute to or mitigate criminal behaviors.
Effects of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
Stronger Attempts to Avoid Detection and Arrest
Many feel that harsh sentencing policies provide a deterrent to potential offenders by providing a sort of scare factor. The rational is relatively simple and is based on the notion that the threat of lengthy sentences would effectively prevent certain crimes from taking place. While this logic might prove effective in some instances, it is not a uniform factor that can be relied upon solely to reduce crime or arrests for myriad different reasons. As regulations and policies evolve, criminals and their activities do too. Many are driven by greed, necessity, or thrill -- which are rarely affected by the risk of incarceration. The mindsets seem to be that the criminals think they simply will not get caught and they adapt their routines to ensure their activities can continue. In other instances, criminals are ignorant of the punishment for their offenses. They are aware that they are transgressing the law, yet do not know what the specific sentencing measures for their particular crimes are. As the story and circumstances surrounding those who do get caught surface, criminals 'adjust fire' so as to avoid a potential end to their activities.
Prison Overcrowding and Tax Payer Burdens
Another of the consequences of mandatory minimum sentences is seen in a dramatic growth in the U.S. federal prison population. "We now spend about $6.4 billion a year on federal prisons, about a quarter of the Justice Department's entire budget" [You should really identify the speaker of this quote here](Leahy & Garza, 2014). The case study of Weldon Angelos, a 23-year-old male with no prior arrest history who was sentenced to 55 years after three occasions where he sold approximately $350 worth of marijuana to an informant while in possession of a handgun, helps to emphasize the taxpayer burden and the overcrowding of U.S. federal prisons that mandatory minimum sentencing exacerbates. This 55-year imprisonment was a compounding of the marijuana sale and illegal possession of the handgun. The prison term imposed will cost the American taxpayers 1.5 million dollars. It is also important to note that the overcrowding of prisons has effectively led to what is termed "prison business" -- which is the transfer of ownership of prisons from the traditional public sector to the private sector. Private, corporate ownership of prisons is becoming much more common than it used to be. Additionally, prison labor -- which is essentially a form of slavery in which inmates are forced to work for pennies -- is being used to facilitate products in an increasing number of industries.
Support For and Against Reform
Support for reform
There will never be a perfect world without crime where society lives in total peace. Since there will always be an underlying, evolving evil that plagues our society regardless of regulations and policies, the current one-size-fits-all minimum sentencing guidelines must evolve as well. While some offenders deserve long prison sentences and longer sentences better serve public safety, sentencing should be done on a case by case basis according to circumstances surrounding the crime. Culpability must play a role when considering the sentence of a crime that has been excessively punished by federal and state policy. This fact particularly holds true for non-violent criminal offenses, such as those which involve narcotics and which a criminal's prior history and life circumstances should be examined and affect his or her sentencing.
Claim against reform
While one is incarcerated, one is physically removed from criminal activity (in general society, at least) and prevented from continued participation or encouragement of that activity. Being incarcerated strips the offender of many liberties and of most of his or her ability to interact with society as a whole. When separated from society, criminals are unable to benefit from the vulnerability or weaknesses of others that contributed to their criminal behavior (Canteen, 2005). By creating situations in which criminals have little freedom and minimal societal interaction, the current minimum sentencing regulation serves as a deterrent for not only recidivism but also for potential offenders.
Rebuttal for Nonsupport of Reform
As per Mauer (2010), an exact percentage of potential offenders and re-offenders that are being deterred by the current federal sentencing policy cannot be accurately determined. "In examining the effect of federal mandatory penalties, the key data problem is that the federal court system handles only a small fraction, less than 10%, of all criminal cases." The 25% decline in crime rates seen in the 1990's was due to increased incarceration rates that could be attributed to more than just sentencing policies. The increased number of arrests, red-taped parole releases, and parole revocations could have all been contributing factors to the decreased crime rates. Additionally, there are numerous crimes which take place within prisons -- including those are not directly related to violence. There are various drugs that are sold and used within a variety of prison settings, which indicates that in some instances, extended jail terms are not the haven from crime and criminal tendencies that they are purported to be. According to Chavez (2000), "In all too many prisons, inmates…