NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Mandatory Sentences Revisited

August 9, 2001

Even anti-crime hawks are beginning to express unease over mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent crimes. They say the sentences are too harsh in some cases. Under such laws, judges are required to impose fixed, substantial terms for certain crimes.

  • In 1984, Congress approved the Sentencing Reform Act -- designed to make sentences more certain and uniform by abolishing federal parole and creating the Sentencing Commission to set guidelines for federal crimes.
  • So far, 400,000 defendants have been sentenced under its terms.
  • Two years later, Congress also imposed harsh minimum sentences for small amounts of crack cocaine -- which legislators at the time considered more dangerous than powdered cocaine -- and for other crimes.
  • Over the years, Congress has drastically raised punishments for repeat offenders -- mirroring state anti-crime efforts.

But in recent months, President Bush as well as other prominent Republicans and influential judges have voiced their doubts about that course.

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has said that he is "reluctant to expand mandatory minimums." Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) recently proposed rolling back his state's stiff sentences. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is drafting legislation to iron out the disparity between harsh sentences for crack and lighter ones for powder.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has announced plans to revisit its most controversial guidelines -- those for sentencing drug crimes and for weighing prior offenses.

Source: Gary Fields, "Mandatory Prison Time Is Losing Its Appeal," Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2001.

For text (WSJ subscribers)


Browse more articles on Government Issues