Mandatory Minimums

Imagine, if you will, you have been in some sort of accident and have been prescribed medication to manage the pain. You meet someone at work and over a little time you become friends. One day you notice your friend is in pain and they tell you that they can either pay for their medicine or the roof over their head. Being their friend, you offer some of your own medication and they pay you what they can. After doing this for a few times, you find yourself on the ground being arrested for drug trafficking. Your friend turns out to be a police informant and now you, as a first time drug offender, are facing 25 years in prison. Sound ridiculous? Fair? Does the punishment fit the crime?

This is the true story of John Horner. He is now serving 25 years in jail because of mandatory minimum laws. He could have reduced his own sentence to 10 years if he became an informant and successfully helped prosecute 5 other people.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws may seem like a quick-fix solution for crime, but they undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. Mandatory sentencing laws cause federal and state prison populations to soar, leading to overcrowding, exorbitant costs to taxpayers, and diversion of funds from law enforcement (FAMM, 2016).


The United State’s prison population is currently estimated to be around 2.3 million people (Wagner) with an annual cost of $260 billion (Raskin).


Mandatory minimums first became popular in the 1980’s with the “War on Drugs”. With the Sentencing Reform Act 1984, judges were given a way to standardize sentencing. However, this took the ability to tailor a punishment to the circumstances away from the judges. If you committed a crime, no matter the reason, you would have a set sentence to carry out.

Here are a few examples from Humans of New York:

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man min 2

There has already been some headway in reforming sentencing laws. In United States v. Booker 2005 it stated that “sentencing guidelines, where they allow judges to enhance sentences using facts not reviewed by juries, violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.” The Fair Sentencing Act 2010 lowered the amount of crack cocaine that would trigger mandatory minimums and increase those in violent cases. The Smarter Sentencing Act 2013, 2014, 2015 seek to reduce mandatory minimums and allow those in prison to seek shorter sentences.

There is little to no evidence that longer prison terms for many nonviolent offenders make us safer. Indeed, it can have the precise opposite effect. There is vast research indicating that prison can cause inmates to commit more crimes upon release partly because low-level offenders find themselves surrounded by more serious and violent offenders in prison and partly because they have trouble finding employment and reintegrating into society upon release (Eisen & Torres, 2015).

Currently public opinion is for the removal of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. It is even a platform during the current presidential debate.

Mandatory min 1

With the 2016 Presidential Election looming, candidates are using criminal justice reform as one of their many platforms. Both Democratic candidates are for either removing mandatory minimums entirely or severely editing the current policies. However, Clinton is being questioned due to her involvement and support of the initial laws.

 As first lady in the 1990s, Clinton was a cheerleader for the “tough on crime” policies that produced the “era of mass incarceration” she now condemns. “We need more police,” she said in a 1994 speech. “We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.” (Sullum)

With any topic there are two sides to every story, and there are those who oppose the repeal of the mandatory minimum laws. Such as Sen. Tom Cotton who believes-

the criminal justice reform bill would allow thousands of felons convicted of violent crimes to be released early from prison. (Kim)

While this topic is still being highly debated, it appears as if great changes will be made in the near future to help stymie the flow of people into our criminal justice system. Hopefully we will hear more stories of those who have been granted clemency for time served if they were low level offenders like this-


For a more in-depth look,  John Oliver has done several segments on the United States’ criminal justice system. In the segment below he goes into detail regarding our country’s mandatory minimum laws. Oliver does an impeccable job of bringing this issue to light, explaining how these laws came into being, how these laws have increased our prison population, and how the government is finally taking note of the issue by trying to get these laws repealed.

View his other segments on PrisonBail, Prison Reentry, Public Defenders, Municipal Violations, and The Death Penalty.

@publicreligion. (2016, February 6). Retrieved from Twitter:
Eisen, L.-B., & Torres, G. (2015, June 9). Mandatory Minimum Sentences — Time to End Counterproductive Policy. Retrieved from Brennan Center for Justice:
Fair Sentencing Act 2010. (2010, August 3). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Justice:
FAMM. (2016). What Are Mandatory Minimums? Retrieved from FAMM:
Friedersdorf, C. (2013, April 3). A Heartbreaking Drug Sentence of Staggering Idiocy. Retrieved from The Atlantic:
Jr., R. H. (1984, June 4). H.R.5773 – Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Retrieved from
Kim, S. M. (2016, February 8). Authors pitch changes to criminal justice bill. Retrieved from Politico:
Lee, S. M. (2015, February 12). S. 502 / H.R. 920, The Smarter Sentencing Act. Retrieved from FAMM:
Raskin, D. L. (2015, October 2). Mass Incarceration: Seizing the Moment for Reform. Retrieved from NYC Bar:
Schmidt, M. S. (2015, October 6). U.S. to release 6,000 inmates from prison. Retrieved from The New York Times:
Stanton, B. (2016, February 8). Retrieved from Humans of New York:
Stanton, B. (2016, February 10). Retrieved from Humans of New York:
Stanton, B. (2016, February 14). Retrieved from Humans of New York:
Sullum, J. (2015, April 30). Why Hillary Clinton Lacks Credibility On Criminal Justice Reform. Retrieved from Forbes:
Tonight, L. W. (2015, July 26). Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Mandatory Minimums (HBO). Retrieved from YouTube:
United States v. Booker. (2004, October 4). Retrieved from Oyez:
Wagner, P., & Rabuy, B. (2015, December 8). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015. Retrieved from Prison Policy Initiative:
Walker, R. (2013, March 27). The trouble with using police informants in the US. Retrieved from BBC: