mandatory minimum sentencing

How Nonviolent People Are Sentenced to Die in Prison Because of the War on Drugs

In the United States, one can be sentenced to life in prison for the following crimes:

  • Possessing a crack pipe
  • Possessing a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin (too minute to be weighed)
  • Having traces of cocaine in clothes pockets that were invisible to the naked eye but detected in lab tests
  • Having a single crack rock at home
  • Possessing 32 grams of marijuana (worth about $380 in California) with intent to distribute
  • Passing out several grams of LSD at a Grateful Dead show
  • Acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop
  • Selling a single crack rock
  • Having a stash of over-the-counter decongestant pills

These are not hypothetical. Every single one of these petty, nonviolent drug crimes have landed Americans in prison for life without parole.

Life in prison without a chance of parole is, short of execution, the harshest imaginable punishment. Life without parole (LWOP) is permanent removal from society with no chance of reentry, no hope of freedom. One would expect the American criminal justice system to condemn someone to die in prison only for the most serious offenses.

Yet across the country, thousands of people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes such as those listed above. 

As of last year, 3,278 people were serving life in prison without parole for nonviolent crimes, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week.

And to no one’s surprise, about 79 percent of the 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP were sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent drug crimes in the federal system.

How is this possible?

Mandatory sentencing laws that stem from America’s fervent, decades-long crusade against drugs.

The vast majority (83 percent) of life sentences examined by the ACLU were mandatory, meaning that the presiding judge had no choice but to sentence the defendant to a life behind bars. Mandatory sentences often result from repeat offender laws and draconian sentencing rules. Such federal standards for drug convictions are what land nonviolent criminals in prison for LWOP.

The prevalence of LWOP sentences for nonviolent offenses is a symptom of the relentless onslaught of more than four decades of the War on Drugs and “tough-on crime” policies, which drove the passage of unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws, including three-strikes provisions (which mandate certain sentences for a third felony conviction) and mandatory minimum sentences (which require judges to punish people convicted of certain crimes by at least a mandatory minimum number of years in prison). 

These inflexible, often extremely lengthy, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws prevent judges from tailoring punishment to the individual and the seriousness of the offense, barring them from considering factors such as the individual’s role in the offense or the likelihood that he or she will commit a subsequent crime.

Federal judges have long been outspoken in their opposition to mandatory sentencing laws. Judge Andre M. Davis of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “I say with certainty that mandatory minimums are unfair and unjust. These laws, created by an overzealous Congress decades ago … hinder judges from handing out fair and individualized sentences, while prosecutors are given unwarranted power to dictate sentences through charging decisions.”

How do petty drug crimes add up to life without parole?

Three federal drug offenses can result in LWOP, even if the offenses are relatively minor. For example, a federal conviction for possessing 50 grams of methamphetamine carries a mandatory life-without-parole sentence if the defendant has previously been convicted of two other felony drug offenses, which can be as minor as selling personal amounts of marijuana.

A handful of states have instituted mandatory LWOP sentences for certain drug offenses. In Alabama, a conviction for selling more than 56 grams of heroin results in a mandatory LWOP sentence. Similarly, a person convicted of selling two ounces of cocaine in Mississippi must receive LWOP. To put these sentences in perspective, the average time served for murder in the U.S. is 14 years.

While laws such as these were enacted in part out of concern about drug abuse and drug-related crime, the penalties they prescribe have not succeeded in curbing drug use or addiction rates, which have essentially remained flat for 40 years. Instead, the laws have contributed to mass incarceration in the U.S. 

The ACLU report contains the in-depth stories of 110 individual prisoners waiting to die behind bars for nonviolent offenses, along with more detailed information about mandatory sentencing.

Thanks to Mother Jones and the ACLU
Poll: 77% of Americans Favor Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences For Nonviolent Offenders; 73% Favor Restoring Voting Rights

77% Favor Eliminate Mandatory Minimums for Nonviolent Offenders

The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds that 77 percent of Americans favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis. Seventeen percent oppose this policy change, and 6 percent don’t have an opinion.

Support for eliminating mandatory minimums has increased 6 points since the poll first asked this question in December 2013.

Returning sentencing discretion to judges is popular across partisanship, race, age, income, and education. For instance, 81 percent of Democrats support eliminating mandatory minimums, as do 75 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans, including 69 percent of tea party supporters. Similarly, 77 percent of white Americans, 80 percent of African-Americans, and 73 percent of Hispanics favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.

73% of Americans Support Restoring Voting Rights

Americans also support restoring voting rights to nonviolent drug offenders who have served their sentences by a margin of 73 to 24 percent.

Restoring voting rights is also widely popular across demographic groups, although Democrats are more supportive. Eighty-one percent of Democrats favor allowing nonviolent drug offenders who have served their sentences to vote and 17 percent oppose. In contrast, 66 percent of non-partisan independents and 64 percent of Republicans agree; 28 and 32 percent oppose, respectively

For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them. But broad-based political will to change those laws remained elusive.

Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess.

“It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor.

In California one of, if not the biggest, supporters of mandatory minimum sentences for “drug” offenders, people who have not violated the rights of others, is the prison guard union. They get job security–longer average sentences than for violent offenders–and job safety–few of those arrested for drugs are violent people. It’s a win-win situation for them and to hell with that quaint myth known as inalienable rights.

John Oliver delivers his best on mandatory minimum sentences, and on ending the war on drugs.
Ross Ulbricht Guilty: Silk Road Founder Convicted By Jury; Faces Life In Prison For Conspiracy, Drug Trafficking

Ross Ulbricht has been found guilty of operating the online drug marketplace known as the Silk Road. It took a jury less than four hours of deliberation to determine that Ulbricht, using the screen name Dread Pirate Roberts, facilitated millions of dollars worth of drug transactions on the anonymous market from February 2011 through October 2013. Ulbricht, 30, could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Ulbricht has been on trial in Manhattan federal court since Jan. 13, but it took the jury just three and a half hours Wednesday to find him guilty on seven counts, including two charges of distributing narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and four conspiracy counts. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The jury of six men and six women rejected defense attorney Joshua Dratel’s claim that Ulbricht, a computer programmer and physics scholar, founded the site but then walked away after a few months due to overwhelming stress.

Mandatory minimums in the case mean Ulbricht will spend 30 years in prison at the least – and he could be sentenced to the rest of his natural life. His legal team is expected to file an appeal, in part because of frequent objections over what evidence was allowed into trial. 

His sentence will be imposed May 15 by Judge Katherine Forrest of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Forrest spent Wednesday morning instructing the jurors, advising them that their task was solely to determine Ulbricht’s guilt based on the evidence presented over the course of the trial.
Why Prosecutors Love Mandatory Minimums

In my view, no one should go to prison for engaging in consensual transactions. But even if you think that Clay and Walker deserved to do time, a life sentence cannot be appropriate if prosecutors were initially prepared to give them a term of a decade or less.

At some point the interests of justice have to outweigh the interests of prosecutors. We surely have passed that point when the penalty for exercising your constitutional right to a trial can be spending the rest of your life in prison.
United States Congress: Support the Smarter Sentencing Act
A new petition taking off on and we think you might be interested in signing it.

Incarceration of an individual effects much more than the person in prison. Not only do their spouses and children suffer, but their communities overall. Children whose parent is incarcerated are found to suffer from a wide range of negative behaviors and long lasting symptoms. This includes physical aggression, depression, anxiety, decreased educational performance and an increased involvement in the criminal justice system themselves.

Reintegration services for newly released inmates that were once in place have been hit with funding cuts and cannot provide the services that they were once able to. This impacts the individual’s potential for housing, employment and education.The individual then is unprepared and unsupported to successfully reintegrate into society, setting them up for failure.

It has also been proven time and time again that minority populations suffer from incarceration more than their White majority counterparts. People of Black race are 30% more likely to get arrested than people of White race. This same disparity can be seen in the current US prison population. One in 15 American Black men are incarcerated and one in 13 American Black men are unable to vote. How can we continue to justify this as a nation?

Obviously there is a cost associated with housing, feeding and caring for these incarcerated individuals. As a country, we spent $80,000,000,000 in 2010 on 2,300,000 incarcerated Americans. In a nation that is looking to cut funding for education and mental health care, these dollars could be assisting people rather than spent locking people up and taking away their rights.

The judicial system’s discretion with sentencing has also become extremely limited. Mandatory minimum sentencing prescribes sentences for drug charges and does not allow for any other interpretations. These sentences are implemented for anyone who is charged with possession, for individuals who are drug lords, and everyone in between. It takes the power away from the judges that are appointed into their positions of power.

By supporting the Smarter Sentencing Act, you are ensuring that minority populations are treated justly by the criminal justice and legal system, that future generations in America will be more successful by having the support of both parents at home, ensure that your tax dollars are being spent to help people rather than to penalize them, and putting power back into the hands of local judges who are trained to deal with local issues. Lets end the incarceration cycle and the negative stigma surrounding the criminal justice system in America. Join us by telling the United States Congress to support the Smart Sentencing Act.
Stop-and-Frisk: How Government Creates Problems, Then Makes Them Worse -

Stop-and-frisk is largely aimed at finding youths who are carrying guns and drugs. Mandatory minimums are directed at drug sellers. It’s not hard to see what is at the root: drug prohibition. When government declares (certain) drugs illegal, those drugs don’t disappear; instead they move to the black market, which tends to be dominated by people skilled in the use of violence. Because the trade is illegal and the courts are off-limits for dispute resolution, contracts and turf will be protected by force. Those who operate on the street will find it wise to be armed.

Ask yourself why after so many decades of apparent failure — drugs are plentiful, accessible, and inexpensive — prohibition persists, as if spending more taxpayer dollars or coming up with some new law-enforcement gimmick will bring success. Maybe prohibition has not failed at all. Maybe the purpose is simply to spend the money and expand law enforcement. Maybe all the moralizing is simply a ruse.

And maybe what Thomas Paine said about wars also applies to the war on drugs: “a bystander, not blinded by prejudice nor warped by interest, would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.”

The Longest-Running War in America’s History—Rebecca Gordon

The Longest-Running War in America’s History—Rebecca Gordon

On the latest RadioWHO program produced by and reposted on, host Guillermo Jimenez has an illuminating and on-point conversation with Rebecca Gordon author of a recent article on the Drug War featured at They discuss the parallels between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror and related issues including police militarization, the…

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Globalpost: Brazil should decriminalize drug possession, justice ministers say

Rio de Janeiro, Apr 16 (EFE).- Seven of Brazil’s former justice ministers on Tuesday released a letter advocating the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The signers are the justice ministers who served during the 1995-2003 government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the 2003-2011 administration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and they delivered the letter personally on Tuesday to Federal Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes.

“Each citizen has the freedom to build his own mode of life provided that he respects the space of others,” the erstwhile officials say.

They point out that the policies to fight drugs based on penalizing consumers have failed.

“Treating the consumer as a citizen and offering him treatment structure by means of a policy of damage reduction is more appropriate than stigmatizing him as a criminal,” they say.

The signers cite successful experiences in countries such as GermanyArgentinaColombia,SpainItaly and Portugal, which adopted decriminalization of drug possession for one’s own personal use as an “effective way” of fighting drug trafficking.

The position of the ex-ministers was made known at a time when the lower house of Congress is preparing to vote on a reform to the Drug Law that includes the possible involuntary hospitalization of consumers of illicit drugs and increasing the mandatory minimum sentence for drug-related offenses from five years to eight.

What to Make of Rand Paul?

At some point in his life, Rand Paul presumably had to decide whether he was going to reject or embrace the libertarian dogmatism of his namesake; obviously Paul chose to double down on his father’s legacy (and so excluded the possibility of ever being taken entirely seriously by a substantial portion of the population). It’s a shame that Paul never worked out a more nuanced (public) understanding of economics, because he has become one of the more straightforward and intelligent members of Congress, as well as an exceptionally shrewd politician. Also, as you’ve probably heard, he now says things like this:

“Look, the last two presidents could have conceivably been put in jail for their drug use and I really think - look what would’ve happened, it would’ve ruined their lives. They got lucky. But a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky and they don’t have good attorneys and they go to jail for some of these things and I think it’s a big mistake.”

Words are words, but Paul deserves credit for backing up his talk with the introduction of a bill to reform federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. There’s no saying how Rand Paul’s adventures in the DC limelight will turn out, but it does not seem completely unreasonable to hope that when all is said and done he might have done more good than harm.
71 Percent Want to Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Non-Violent Offenders - Hit & Run :

It’s also important to keep in mind that most Americans are not fully aware of the arguments for and against mandatory minimums. Nevertheless, because Americans’ initial reaction is to oppose mandatory minimums, the burden of proof lies with those who favor the status quo.
Holder proposes changes in criminal justice system -

WASHINGTON (AP) Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for certain drug-related crimes, divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

Baby steps.  Will watch this closely.

But God it’s hard to watch these assholes, after decades of destroying lives and communities with policies that are obviously counter-productive, waltz in like Big Damn Heroes and talk about getting “Smart on Crime ™.”
How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison

If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction. In fact, I have been at this so long, I am now sentencing the grown children of people I long ago sent to prison.

Read the full article at