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3 Things You NEED To Know About Mandatory Prison Sentencing

Our three most recent presidents have admitted to committing drug offenses in their youth, though they didn’t pay for their indiscretions with jail time. But most people caught up in our criminal justice system aren’t so lucky. Perhaps the worst aspect of the flawed system is mandatory minimum sentences. Consider Weldon Angelos, one victim — a former record producer who won’t get out of jail until he’s eighty and has served a sentence of more than twice what the hijacker of a plane would face. His crime? Selling marijuana twice.
Alex Kreit, criminal law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, explains three reasons why mandatory minimums are really, really, really bad. For one thing, the sentences can be longer than those for more serious crimes. Second, they get the wrong people, despite the intentions of lawmakers. Third, if the goal is to reduce drug use, they fail on their own terms. Among their targets in practice are people who have been convicted of such minor offenses as possession for personal use. Drugs are as plentiful as ever.


  1. How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison (article): Judge Mark W. Bennett says the practice is unjust.

  2. The Out Of Control War On Drugs: How Sentencing Rules Force Defendants To Plead Guilty (article): Jacob Sullum describes how prosecutorial discretion aggravates the damage done by mandatory minimums.

  3. Encouraging Baby Steps on Mandatory Minimums (podcast): Tim Lynch tells in an interview how reform might unfold.

  4. Mandatory minimum sentences impede justice (article): Judge Andre Davis tells the story of Tony Gregg, occasional drug dealer.


3 Things You NEED to Know About Mandatory Prison Sentencing

Our current president admits to having smoked a fair amount of marijuana in his youth, and even using cocaine. But if you were caught with a certain amount of cocaine three times, you could be spending the rest of your life in prison.

The president before him was caught driving under the influence. But if you were driving your friend to a drug deal, you could be spending the rest of your life in prison.

And the president before that? He says he didn’t inhale. But if you were the one selling him the marijuana and he said you had a gun on you, you could be spending more than half a century in prison.

Here are three reasons why mandatory minimums are really, really, really bad. Reason (1): They give ridiculously long sentences relative to other crimes. Take the case of Weldon Angelos, a twenty-five-year-old record producer. He was convicted of selling marijuana a couple of times to an informant who claimed that he had a gun. He received more than twice as much time as he would have if he had hijacked an airplane, detonated a bomb in public, or even if he was a second-degree murderer.

Weldon Angelos is going to be eighty by the time he gets out of jail. He has kids. Can you believe that? More time than a murderer for selling marijuana?

(2) They punish the wrong people. Congress enacted mandatory minimum laws ostensibly to go after big-time drug traffickers. So-called serious offenders would be subject to a five-year minimum. So-called major drug traffickers — ten. The punishments increase to twenty years or even to mandatory life for people with prior drug-felony convictions.

Here’s where it gets tricky. You can have a drug-felony conviction just for sharing a marijuana cigarette at a concert with a friend. Or, in some states, simply for possessing drugs for your own use. Are these the kind of people who should get twenty-year mandatory-minimum sentences, or even life, if they make another mistake down the road?

Think about that — five, ten, twenty years.  How much time it is that we’re really talking about. And think about how many people you know who could be in this category of a prior drug offender judge for sharing drugs or for possessing them for their own use.

Number (3): They don’t work. When Congress passed these laws in the 1980s, they did so to try to make drugs harder to find and more expensive. Today, drugs are just as available as ever, and cheaper than before.

Given that it costs $29,000 a year to keep someone in federal prison and the price of drugs has gone down since the laws were passed, how could we say these laws have worked? We can’t.

I’m Alex Kreit, criminal law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. These are just three of the reasons why I think mandatory minimums are among the worst aspects of our criminal justice system. If you agree with me, there is still reason to be hopeful that these laws can be reformed.

Click here to see my next video about efforts to change the laws. If you want to get involved right now, click here. And don’t forget to subscribe to Learn Liberty for more videos like this one.

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