Let the Punishment Fit the Crime: Re-Thinking Mandatory Minimums

Karen Shook, a mother of three from Waterford in Oakland County, is serving 20 years behind bars in a Michigan prison.  So addicted to drugs that police officers called her "an easy mark" for their sting operation, she introduced undercover officers to her supplier.  After several transactions, she was arrested and charged with both delivery and conspiracy to deliver cocaine.  Each charge carried a 10-year mandatory sentence.

By the time Karen went to trial, she had gone through a treatment program, cooperated with law enforcement, and was so remorseful the arresting officer urged the judge to use his limited authority to go below the mandatory sentence for "substantial and compelling reasons."  The judge gave Karen 10 years.  But the prosecutor appealed his decision, insisting Karen should serve each 10-year term consecutively, as required by state law.

Michigan residents will spend well over half a million dollars to keep Karen in prison for 20 years, while her children grow up without their mother.

Across the nation, state legislators are grappling with tough issues related to sentencing.  At issue: harsh mandatory sentencing laws that remove sentencing discretion from judges and dramatically lengthen prison sentences through special provisions such as consecutive sentencing.  These automatic sentences impose "one-size-fits-all justice," usually based solely on the weight of the drugs involved.

Legislators intended to target "drug kingpins" and to deter drug use when they enacted mandatory sentencing laws.  But the laws backfired.  States are filling their prisons with low-level, often first-time offenders, while the kingpins at the top of the drug trade exchange information and assets for lighter sentences.  As for deterrence: drugs are purer, cheaper, and more easily obtainable than ever. And the cost of warehousing drug offenders is straining many state budgets to the limit.

Stories like Karen's, along with runaway prison costs, are leading many states to quietly reconsider their drug penalties.  This year, Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, California, and North Dakota rolled back mandatory drug sentences.  Massachusetts, New York, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, and Idaho are all considering revising their drug laws.

In 1998, the Michigan Legislature became a leader in this reform movement when it voted to relax the "650 Lifer Law."  This law had mandated life without parole for sales of 650 grams of heroin or cocaine, even for first-time offenders, and was the harshest drug law in the nation.  Unfortunately, the 1998 reform left most of the draconian sentencing structure in place.

Legislators need to finish the job by giving judges back the ability to fit the punishment to the crime and to the individual offender.  All the tools are in place.  Michigan has sentencing guidelines that allow judges to base sentences on all the relevant factors in a case.  The guidelines allow judges to impose appropriate sentences from within the range, but prevent sentencing extremes. 

In addition, a statewide drug court and drug treatment movement, which has the enthusiastic backing of many county prosecutors and law enforcement officials, is proving that lives like Karen's can be turned around.  Such programs address the underlying causes of crime, while enhancing public safety and restoring families at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.  Had Karen been arrested when she helped officers make the first small drug buy, she may have qualified for one of these programs instead of suffering the harsh 20-year sentence she ultimately received. 

National and statewide polls indicate that citizens overwhelmingly support cost-effective treatment and carefully supervised alternatives to incarceration for many low-level drug offenders.  That's not being soft, but being smart, on crime—and in these difficult economic times, Michigan's taxpayers also will thank their legislators for finding the courage to do the right thing. 


(Laura Sager is executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Washington, D.C. and Lawrence Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and their affiliations are cited.)


State legislators should reform harsh "mandatory minimum" sentencing laws that limit judges' discretionary powers and dramatically lengthen prison sentences for low-level, often first-time drug offenders-while doing almost nothing to punish the "kingpins" the laws were supposed to target.

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