Mandatory minimums have been one of the least successful policies in the long war against drugs. Mushrooming prison costs, the unfair incarceration of numerous low-level drug offenders and the perpetuation of inadequate drug rehabilitation programs can all be attributed to the popularity of mandatory minimum laws throughout the United States. Judges have criticized the laws because prosecutors are given excessive power in determining the length of an offender’s sentence. These affronts to democracy, however, have not successfully rooted out drug addiction. Michigan’s harsh guidelines have now come under review.
Last Wednesday, the Standing Committee on Criminal Justice of the Michigan House of Representatives voted unanimously to send legislation revamping Michigan’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws to the full house for a vote. Mandatory minimum sentences require judges to sentence a suspect to a given number of years in prison based on the amount of drugs found in his/her possession. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Bill McConico (D-Detroit), enjoys bi-partisan support and will be voted on Dec. 3 before being sent to the state Senate for consideration. If passed, this legislation will be the first change to Michigan’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws since 1998, when the legislature changed the required life in prison for sale of 650 or more grams of cocaine to a mandatory twenty-year minimum sentence.
The legislative package provides judges with more discretion in sentencing people convicted of drug-related offenses and enables them to consider the individual factors of each case, such as prior convictions and whether or not there are other related criminal charges. The bills also have provisions for changing the guidelines governing maximum penalties to be more lenient.
Under the standing law, sentences are based on the amount of a given drug in an individual’s possession. As a result, the harsher sentences are disproportionately dealt to low-level couriers and addicts, while people who are higher up in the drug-dealing hierarchy are often able to trade information with police and prosecutors for lesser charges and lighter sentences.
This is not the only way sentences are handed out disproportionately. On average whites and blacks convicted of the same drug-related offense get differing sentences, with blacks on average serving more time in prison.
Aside from resolving these discriminatory sentencing patterns, other benefits to passing the proposed legislation include the amount of state money that would be saved by reducing the prison population. With greater discretion in sentencing, judges will not be obligated to lock up drug-offenders for excessively long periods of time.
The money the state could save can go toward programs that would prove more effective in reducing drug addiction rates, such as education. More state funds could be directed toward treatment and rehabilitation programs troubled drug users. These types of programs would be much more effective if the government is seriously concerned about curbing the rate of drug use in the state.
While the new laws would be an improvement to the judicial and legislative attitude about drugs, decriminalization would be better. Drug use is a victimless crime and most drug-related crime results from the fact that drugs are illegal.