New Criminal Statutes & Mandatory Minimums

Historically, law enforcement and crime and punishment was left to the states. The states wrote the majority of criminal laws and enforced them as well. But, over the past several decades, the federal government has played an increasing role in the criminal justice system—enacting new criminal laws at an alarming rate of about 500 per decade with a grand total of around 4,500 federal criminal statutes. A recent editorial in the Washington Post aptly equates this rambunctious federal criminal system to a “Sheriff with attention-deficit disorder, haphazardly criminalizing this and that behavior in order to express righteous alarm about various wrongs that excite attention.”

George F. Will used the Post to write in support of the “safety valve” proposed by federal lawmakers that would reduce the severity and number of federal mandatory minimum crimes. And that valve is proposed with significant cause. About 80,000 people are sentenced in federal criminal courts every single year, helping to keep the U.S.’s position as the most incarcerated nation in the world an unchallenged one.

The federal government has passed all kinds of criminal laws—far more than the Constitution allows for Congress to be involved in. But, the majority of those laws have surrounded the War on Drugs. At this time, about half of the approximate 219,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses. Drug offenses, not counterfeiting, treason, or crimes on the high seas—all of which Congress is authorized to pass laws on—not even violent offenses, but drug crimes.

Jail CellThis federal prison population, as Will reports, has grown a whopping 51% since 2000 and prisons are operating at 138% of capacity levels. Surely, with this sort of crowding and costs impacting programming, there is little hope for federal drug offenders to come out of prison reformed and without addiction.

Mandatory minimum sentences, which take discretion away from federal judges and instead prescribe a one-size-fits-all prison sentence, are part of the driving force behind the overcrowded and dysfunctional federal prison system. The safety valve would offer a route for relief.

It’s these mandatory minimums that cause federal prosecutors to overcharge defendants, realizing that a defendant will be more willing to “cop a plea” to a lesser charge, that lesser charge still carrying a significant sentence. This has become so commonplace that federal prosecutors win 90% of their cases, 97% of those without a trial.

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system. Mandatory minimums are definitely near the top of the list.

About David Matson