Mandatory Minimums, Crime, and Drug Abuse: Lessons Learned, Paths Ahead
Date:  02-26-2019

A study of three states, New York, Michigan and Florida, illustrates the downside of mandatory minimum sentences
From The James Madison Institute:

In the 1970s, three states – New York, Michigan, and Florida – adopted mandatory minimum sentencing laws in efforts to deter drug trafficking and crime associated with the drug trade. Decades later, their experiences offer guidance to policymakers still searching for answers to the same problems.

The Origins of Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller addressed New York City’s rampant drug abuse and violent crime problem. The year prior, accidental drug overdose deaths in New York State were six times what they had been in 1960,1 and Governor Rockefeller promised a new strategy. New York adopted “severe and mandatory penalties for narcotic drug offenses at all levels and for the most serious offenses involving many other drugs.”2 Those new sentences would become known as the “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” then the harshest drug sentencing laws in the country.

A few years after New York adopted the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken was searching for answers to his own state’s ongoing drug and crime epidemic. After reading a copy of Rockefeller’s 1973 speech, he was persuaded mandatory minimums were the answer. In 1978, at Milliken’s request, Michigan established mandatory minimum prison sentences for a range of drug offenses. Chief among them was the so called “650-Lifer law,” which established a mandatory life sentence without parole for anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. The same act established other mandatory minimums for lesser drug offenses.3 Described as a “one strike-and-you're-out law,” 650-Lifer was aimed at drug kingpins and intended to deter drug trafficking in Michigan.4

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, by the mid-1970s, Miami, Florida had become the “drug capital of the Western Hemisphere,” and South Florida was “overwhelmed by violent cocaine and marijuana traffickers from Latin America.”5 Following the lead of New York and Michigan, the first bill passed by the 1979 Florida legislature and signed into law by then Governor Bob Graham created 893.135, F.S., and along with it “the crimes of ‘trafficking in cannabis,’ ‘trafficking in cocaine,’ and "trafficking in illegal drugs.’”6 The new law provided “mandatory minimum penalties and additional fines for each of the crimes created.”7

As a summary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws described, the theory behind all three states’ strategy was simple:

First, it sought to frighten drug users out of their habit and drug dealers out of their trade, and thus to reduce illegal drug use, or at least contain its spread. Second, it aimed to reduce crimes commonly associated with addiction, particularly robberies, burglaries, and theft. It was believed that some potential drug offenders would be deterred by the threat of the "get-tough" laws, while at the same time some hardened criminals would be put away for long periods, and thus be prevented from committing further crimes.8 In New York, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were met with mixed reaction. Law enforcement officials in New York City expressed skepticism, and some even opposed the bill.9 Others around the state rallied in support, including police officials in Syracuse and Buffalo.10 In Michigan, “a good deal of support for the 1978 legislation came from the law enforcement community, including police agencies, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, and judges’ associations.”11 Florida law enforcement groups cheered the new mandatory minimum law, too, arguing that it sent “a clear signal to traffickers in illegal drugs that they would pay a heavy price if caught with large amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.”12 The shift to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug trafficking was not without its skeptics at the time. Experts and political leaders across the ideological spectrum warned mandatory minimums would fail to curb drug use and related crime, but would nevertheless cause incarceration rates and corrections budgets to rise. In Michigan, for example:

[O]pponents pointed out that severe mandatory penalties are not a proven deterrent to crime, that the use of mandatory sentences would fail to provide for individualized sentencing that could take into account aspects of the crime other than the amount of narcotics, and that major drug dealers likely would employ drug addicts and others as couriers, thereby avoiding possessing large amounts of drugs themselves.13

By 1979, the two sides of the mandatory minimum drug sentencing debate were clear. On one side, proponents believed “the magnitude of the drug problem demanded the enactment of stricter laws, and that harsher penalties would both serve as a deterrent against dealing in illicit drugs and decrease the number of drug-related crimes by keeping drug dealers in prison for longer periods of time.”14 On the other side, skeptics argued that mandatory minimum laws would fail to reduce crime or drug abuse, but would cause higher incarceration rates, bloated corrections budgets, and injustice in individual cases. Now, some 40 years later, the experiences of New York, Michigan, and Florida offer evidence as to which side had the better argument. Continue reading >>>