There are many reasons to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They frequently require excessive punishments, they put too much power into the hands of prosecutors (at the expense of judges), and they are expensive. Defenders of such laws say they're worth it because they keep society safe. They argue that crime rates drop whenever mandatory sentences are enacted and rise when they are repealed or reduced. But after 30 years of experience with mandatory sentences at the federal and state level, we know that's not true.
Congress passed strict mandatory sentences for buying and selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs in 1986. Selling even small amounts of these drugs resulted in automatic five-year prison sentences (10 years for higher quantities). Beginning in 1987, when the new mandatory sentencing law took effect, the violent crime rate actually rose over the next four years by a startling 24 percent and did not return to its 1987 level until a decade later.
Before it reached that point, however, Congress acknowledged that the new mandatory minimum prison sentences were sometimes excessive, and in 1994 voted to exempt certain first-time, nonviolent and low-level drug offenders from mandatory minimums. In those cases, courts were authorized to impose individualized sentences based on the defenders' role in the crime.
So crime went up, right? Not even close. Since the mandatory minimum carve-out, known as the "safety valve," was implemented, roughly 80,000 drug offenders have received shorter sentences, and the crime rate has dropped by 44 percent. Needless to say, a theory that says mandatory sentences reduce crime cannot explain how the crime rate dropped so far and so fast when tens of thousands of drug offenders were spared the full weight of such sentences.
The experience of the states is even more devastating to mandatory sentencing's defenders. Over the past decade, 17 states took steps to reduce their prison populations, including by repealing or curtailing their mandatory sentencing laws. In all 17 states, prison populations fell, and so did their crime rates.
What we have learned is that, while punishment is important, mandatory prison sentences for everyone who breaks the law don't make us safer. University of Chicago economist and "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt was perhaps the most influential supporter of pro-prison policies in the '90s. He said that sending more people to prison was responsible for as much as 25 percent of the decade's crime drop. Proponents of mandatory sentences cited Levitt at every turn.
But recently, Levitt concluded that as the crime rate continued to drop and the prison population continued to grow, the increase in public safety diminished. He told The New York Times earlier this year, "In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration." But today, Levitt says, "I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third." No one in Congress is proposing anything that radical. But reducing our nation's prison population and crime rate are achievable goals.
Next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would give federal courts more discretion to depart from ill-fitting mandatory minimum sentences. The bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would build on the success of the 1994 legislation. Thirty years of evidence suggests this approach will make us safer.
Julie Stewart is president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.