IA Law Review: Legal Legacies – Mandatory Minimum Sentencing’s Pervasive Effects on the Economy and Social Structure of the United States

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

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Mandatory minimum sentencing is a statute stating that offenders that commit crimes must be imprisoned for a minimum term; and not at the discretion of a judge (“Oxford”, 2017). The original intent of mandatory minimum sentencing was to increase consistency in sentences.  Currently, more than half of the inmates in federal prison have been convicted on an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty (“US Courts”, 2017).


Research suggests that mandatory minimum sentences tend to incarcerate certain demographics disproportionately. It has been found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be given a harsher charge than their Caucasian counterparts and are more likely to be imprisoned longer than a Caucasian person for the same offense (“ACLU”, 2014). These sentences are being set disproportionately to certain demographics and have pronounced negative effects on their communities. Because incarceration has such a negative impact on the economic and social status of an individual, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be less economically and socially fit.  Not only do mandatory minimums demonstrate already present sentencing biases, but they are also burdensome for the US to carry out.


Mandatory minimum sentencing has been a part of the United States’ judicial system since it was enacted through the Boggs Act of 1952 (“Encyclopedia of Drug Policy”, 2011). It was enacted with the purpose of targeting “moral vices” with the rationale that one who has committed such an atrocious crime must be sufficiently punished before being brought back into society (Muhlhause, 2010). Although the early intentions of mandatory minimum sentencing seemed proactive, over time, these statutes have morphed into a way to disproportionately incarcerate certain ethnic groups.


It has done its task of providing a compulsory minimum punishment.  But statistics show that throughout history, mandatory minimum sentencing is biased towards certain demographic groups. Even as early as 1991, the US Sentencing Commission concluded that “[t]he disparate application of mandatory minimum sentences . . .  appears to be related to the race of the defendant, where whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum.” (“United States Sentencing Committee”, 1991).


 Research shows that African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be incarcerated than Caucasians for the same crime.  Furthermore, there are more African Americans and Latinos in prison in comparison to Caucasians, which is not proportionate to the US population (“US Department of Justice”, 2016). This is morally tantamount to explicit race-based discrimination. It can be seen that African Americans and Latinos are being disproportionately convicted and it is having pronounced effects on the economy and social class. 


Additionally, these groups have had decreased economic productivity since the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing. This is because incarceration impedes one’s economic mobility following release and as a result, groups that are heavily incarceration are hindered economically as a whole. This also goes to show that even though mandatory minimums had a profound historical impact, its effects are carried into today’s society. This is further highlighted by the correlation of how African American and Latino households have a lower average income than their Caucasian counterparts. As a case in point, the Caucasian net worth is 13 times larger than the African American net worth and 10 times larger than the Latino net worth (“Pew Research Center”, 2014).


Racial disparity is prevalent in mandatory minimum sentencing. Certain ethnic groups have been targeted over our history; and this has decreased economic output and social stability of these groups (“PBS”, 2017). It’s because of this that more attention must be given to the topic of mandatory minimum sentencing. To mitigate this harm, different methods of punishment may help eliminate the bias in incarceration. In summary, the purpose of this essay is to draw attention to the clear racial disparity surrounding mandatory minimum sentencing and to influence real and impactful change by giving the topic more attention and researching its history.


Because certain demographics, such as African Americans and Latinos, are disproportionately incarcerated by the judicial system; their economic mobility, social status and productivity are hindered. Mandatory minimums accentuate this sentencing bias. Moreover, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be charged under mandatory minimum sentencing than Caucasians.  They are also more likely to be prosecuted for the same offense than other groups under the false pretense of mandatory minimum sentencing. Furthermore, the hypothesis states that this long-standing injustice has had pronounced historical effects on the economy, social systems, and productivity of the United States as a whole. Through an analysis of the history of mandatory minimums as well as its implications on today’s society through cause and effect analysis, light can be shed on the topic and help combat historical racial disparity in sentencing.


Mandatory minimum sentencing is a law stating that a person convicted of a crime must be incarcerated for a minimum time or punishment; and the judge’s discretion is very limited below that minimum(“US Legal,” 2017). 


Mandatory minimum sentencing was originally instituted for crimes such as theft and loitering but has gradually morphed into punishments for crimes such as drug possession and distribution. The establishment of this statute regardless of culpability, circumstance, and other factors contributes to racial disparities, demographic targeting, and economic hindrance (“US Legal”, 2017).


The first semblance of mandatory minimum sentencing was found in the Boggs Act of 1951. This act was the first federal law that set mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and this was the original law that led to the vast, current racial disparity (“Tilem & Associates”, 2017).  But it’s important to note that mandatory minimums were implemented to create more uniformity in sentencing. The purpose of mandatory minimum sentencing specific to the Boggs Act of 1951 was to establish minimum sentences for drug offenders and to increase punishment in an effort to decrease drug consumption, the drug market, and violence relating to drugs (“US Legal”, 2017). This law was believed to stem from the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and the restrictions on marijuana began as early as 1906 (“Jenison”, 2017).  Originally, cannabis and narcotics were not included in this act as they weren’t deemed to require a mandatory minimum sentence.


However, Harry Anslinger, former Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, changed the act to include these drugs (“Tilem & Associates”, 2017). On the matter of establishing this act and creating harsh penalties for cannabis, Harry Anslinger stated, “Reefer [cannabis] makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on degenerate races”. Anslinger also added that the majority of marijuana consumers were “Negroes, Hispanics… and entertainers” (“The Devil Weed and Harry Anslinger”, 2006). This shows that originally, mandatory minimum sentencing was made to control minority groups, and cannabis and narcotics weren’t even included in the original draft but added later.


The most current piece of legislation regarding mandatory minimum sentencing is the introduced bill of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. This statute was developed after years of additions starting from 1951. However, this law isn’t even the final legislation on mandatory minimum sentencing as it has been amended several times and is continuing to be amended to this day. This really demonstrates that the law is ever-changing and that if attention is drawn upon the unjust nature of mandatory minimum sentencing, change can be influenced.


Oppression due to demographics has existed throughout human civilization. One of the most prominent forms of oppression in the United States has been oppression due to race. Experts categorize racial discrimination in U.S history in five different forms. The first being the settlement of Europeans displacing Indigenous people (Champagne, 2016). This dispute resulted in many lives lost and the native people being relocated to reservations. The second form of racial oppression refers to the African American population in the context of slavery. Slaves completed labor for hours on end, with no pay, and without the freedom to leave their workplace (Walton, 1970). Third, racial oppression is shown in the form of citizens having fewer rights than others.  These targeted groups are commonly referred to as second-class-citizens. This was most prominent during times after slavery in which the African American population still wasn’t considered equal to the Caucasian citizens. Likewise, immigrants felt this type of oppression as well.  Seeing as they have fewer rights and American born citizens. The fourth type of racial oppression exists in the form of linking non-citizen labor to race and legal citizenship status. During the 19th century, Mexican and Chinese immigrants were specifically utilized as physical laborers but were not granted citizenship (Freedman, 2017). Finally, the fifth form of racial oppression in American history is racial oppression in everyday interactions. This type of discrimination is not supported by legal powers.  But is seen in interactions such as, not hiring someone based on their race (Blauner, 1972).


Prior to the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing, federal judges had almost unlimited power over determining sentences. In the mid-20th century, high ranked members of society began to show distaste for this sentencing system, as it was seen to favor certain demographics (Larkin and Bernick, 2014). Moreover, it was believed that those who have committed a “moral vice” must be adequately punished before returning to society (Muhlhause, 2010). As a result, the U.S. went through a period of sentencing reform, enacting mandatory minimum sentencing. 


Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, judiciaries had virtually total discretion over sentencing (Larkin and Bernick, 2014). However, many began to criticize the trends of disparity among similar cases due to the unchecked discretion. In order to combat the problem at hand, Congress began imposing mandatory minimum sentencing. In 1951, Congress approved the Boggs Act, named after house majority leader Hale Boggs, in attempts to amend the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act (“Encyclopedia of Drug Policy”, 2011). The law established a mandatory minimum for drug convictions. This caused longer sentences, blurred the line between a trafficker and a consumer in sentencing and placed cannabis in the same category as narcotics. Specifically, first time cannabis possession offenders had a minimum sentence of two years with fines up to $20,000 (“New York Times”, 1952).


As time went on, Congress again decided to alter federal sentencing through the passing of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. This act encompassed the Sentencing Reform Act and Armed Career Criminal Act (“Los Angeles Times”, 1993). As a result, the United States Sentencing Commission was formed and the autonomy of judiciaries was further limited to increase consistency in federal sentencing. In some cases, Congress required courts to use mandatory minimums. For instance, as a part of the act, the Armed Career Criminal Act was enacted. This law called for courts to impose a minimum sentence of fifteen years imprisonment on an individual charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm with three prior convictions for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense” (Larkin and Bernick, 2014).


At the current time, there is only one exception to mandatory minimums, also known as a safety valve.  This allows judges to sentence individuals with punishments softer than the mandatory minimums. In 1994, Congress passed this safety valve that applies to first time, non-violent, drug offenders. This exception only applies for a small population of those incarcerated under mandatory minimums (“Families Against Mandatory Minimums”, 2013).


Most recently, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The act eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine, by changing the 100:1 ratio of crack-to-powder to 18:1. This was due to the fact that those charged with possession of crack cocaine had much harsher punishments than those possessing powdered cocaine, due to mandatory minimums (“Families Against Mandatory Minimums”, 2010). In recent years, many sentencing reform bills have been proposed such as the proposed bill entitled the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. However, no legislation has been passed to alter the mandatory minimum sentencing law of 2010.  


Since its implementation, mandatory minimum sentencing has had a disproportionate impact on certain demographics, such as African Americans and Latinos.  As of 2010, Latino offenders accounted for 40.4% of mandatory minimum sentences. Followed by African American offenders who accounted for 29.7% and Caucasian offenders with 27.2% (“US Department of Justice”, 2016).  The percentage of the US population by race compared to the U.S. prison population by race is completely disproportionate. 


Not only are African American and Latino individuals more likely to be convicted under mandatory minimum sentences, but they are also more likely to be arrested.  Studies show that 1 in every 3 African American men and 1 in every 6 Latino men born in 2001 will go to prison during their lifetime.  In contrast, of the white male population born in 2001, only 1 in 17 will go to prison during their lifetime (“Bureau of Justice Statistics”, 2003).  This further proves that mandatory minimums disproportionately affect certain racial groups.  These statistics become even more astounding when compared with the number of arrests by race.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that in the year of 2012, 2,640,067 African American individuals were arrested compared to the 6,502,919 Caucasians arrested.  And, studies show that there are far fewer arrests of Latinos in comparison to Caucasians (“USA Today”, 2014).  It’s shocking that even when the number of arrests for African Americans and Latinos is significantly lower than their Caucasian counterparts, they still make up a larger percentage of mandatory minimum convictions and are more likely to be imprisoned.  Further exemplifying the faults in the U.S. judicial system.

Some might argue that the reason for this is because mandatory minimum sentences only cover some crimes such as drug abuse, pornography, etc. However, this trend is apparent across almost all offenses.  Most commonly, mandatory minimums are used for drug abuse violations.  But we can see that in 2012 there were 372,914 African Americans arrested for drug abuse and 801,198 Caucasians arrested for drug abuse.  It would seem as Caucasians should account for the majority of mandatory minimum arrests.  But startlingly, drug offenders under mandatory minimum charges are almost 75% African American or Latino; although there are more Caucasian drug offenders (“USSC”, 2010).  Likewise, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be given a harsher charge than their Caucasian counterparts. It has been shown that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be imprisoned and longer than Caucasians for the same offense (“ACLU”, 2014). 


Prior to the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing in 1951, the percentage of prison population occupied by African American offenders was relatively stable. However, once introduced, the percentage began to climb unfoundedly. Since it must be determined by the judiciary whether a crime falls under a mandatory minimum, African Americans and Latinos are convicted under mandatory minimums far more frequently.  From October 1, 1989, through September 30, 1990, 67.7% of African Americans and 57.1% of Latino defendants received sentences at or above the mandatory minimum compared with 54% of Caucasian defendants (“US Department of Justice”, 2016).


As observed, the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing are predominantly observed in African American and Latino communities. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing being present; pronounced effects on the prison population, wealth inequality, unemployment rates, economic output, violence, and race disparities have all heightened. The original intent of this law was to decrease drug abuse and crime as well as create uniformity in sentencing. But over time, this law has effectively done the opposite (“ACLU”, 2017).

Incarceration alone can have a negative effect on one’s economic mobility. And because of its strong presence in U.S. history as well as the present judicial system, mandatory minimum sentencing has had a large impact on the American economy.  As seen after the Sentencing Act Reform of 1984, the federal prison population began to grow dramatically. Compared with 1975, the prison population of 2015 has since increased by 500%.  America now has the highest incarceration rate and prison population in the world (“The Sentencing Project”, 2015).


Mandatory minimums are to blame for the large prison population.  Because many soft crimes must be charged with the mandatory minimum, many individuals must now make longer stays in prison.  Before being incarcerated, approximately ⅔ of male inmates were employed and more than half were the primary source of income for their household (Glaze and Maruschak, 2008). This takes many workers out of the economy and out of their homes for prolonged periods of time.  Additionally, the races in which mandatory minimum sentencing seems to favor see harsher economic consequences.  As a result, wealth inequality and wealth distribution amongst African Americans and Latinos are significantly less than Caucasians. The Caucasian net worth is 13 times larger than the African American net worth and 10 times larger than the Latino net worth (“Pew Research Center”, 2014). It is also observed that the status of being incarcerated can lower one’s total earnings.  With an approximate 2% decrease in Caucasian males, 6% in Latino males, and 9% in African American males (Western and Pettit, 2009). And it is shown that the children of incarcerated individuals are affected as well.  And it is shown that a lack of stable family income and education can hinder the future economic mobility of the child.  And it’s this cycle that causes the current trends in the racial income gap as well as the high levels of unemployment in certain racial groups.

Mandatory minimums not only hinder the economic impact of the convicted and their families, but also places an economic burden on the U.S.  In order to accommodate for the large imprisoned population as well as those serving sentences longer than appropriate for the crime committed, the government has had to divert funding to correction facilities.  The U.S. currently spends $80 billion dollars a year on federal incarceration fees and facilities.  This has taken funding away from other sectors like education, infrastructure, etc.  This growing expenditure on correction is unnecessary.  There are many individuals serving time much longer and for nonviolent offenses, due to mandatory minimums.


Mandatory minimum sentencing can have a dire impact on those convicted of it.  And the reason is that mandatory minimum sentencing has offenders staying in correctional facilities for longer periods of time.  And this system can have a negative impact on one’s life.  Former rehabilitation advisor Bernd Maelicke says that “The longer someone has been imprisoned, the harder it gets to find their way back into society. Inside prison, they are stripped of every right and become less fit for life outside.”  This can be explained because after being removed from society for so long, everything seems very odd and during their stay, inmates lose crucial skills.  In addition, society often outcasts these prisoners because of their status making it harder to find stable employment and increases the rate of recidivism.

Mandatory minimum sentences can also have a detrimental effect on the offender’s family by causing an imbalance.  As stated previously, many prisoners are the breadwinner of their families.  When taking them out of the picture, families struggle economically increasing the likelihood of poverty (Travis, McBride, and Solomon, 2003).  Additionally, 42% of children who grow up in the bottom 20% of the income distribution will stay there as adults and for African Americans, it rises to 54% (Isaacs, Sawhill, and Haskins, 2008.).  As shown, children will especially struggle when a parent is incarcerated.  In 2010, there were 2.7 million whose parents were jailed and ⅔ of these imprisonments were because of nonviolent crimes and ¼ from drug violations.  One in 9 African American children and 1 in 28 Latino children have an imprisoned parent.  In comparison, only 1 in 57 Caucasian children have an incarcerated parent.  Children experience mental and emotional trauma and are more likely to experience juvenile delinquency and aggression (Johnson, 2009).  As a result, 23% of children whose fathers have been incarcerated have been expelled or suspended (Wildeman, 2008).  In comparison, the number is 4% for those whose fathers have not been incarcerated (Johnson, 2009).

Lessened economic standing as detailed previously also contributes to many social problems for these racial groups. The fact is that Caucasians are far more likely than African Americans and Latinos to have a college degree or any form of higher education (“Pew Research Center”, 2016). This lack of education leads to unemployment.  It is seen that African Americans and Latinos are unemployed at a higher rate than Caucasians (“Business Insider”, 2015).  This in turn also means Caucasians are more likely to be homeowners than African Americans or Latinos (“Pew Research Center”, 2016). These statistics explain the limited social mobility of these demographics and help understand the recurring cycle caused by the imposition of  mandatory minimum sentencing.  


Society is affected by the racial bias of mandatory minimums as well. Because of the large percentage of prisoners being African American and Latino, they are often at a disadvantage because of the stereotype associated with them. Not only does society develop stereotypes, but so has the judicial system denying these defendants their due process rights.  


These pronounced effects on certain demographics perpetrated by mandatory minimum sentencing affect the United States largely. African Americans have less confidence in law enforcement. 35% of African Americans believe law enforcement treats racial and ethnic groups equally compared to the 75% of Caucasians (“Pew Research Center”, 2016). Furthermore, the systematic targeting of African Americans and Latinos who make up approximately 35% of the American population has historical effects as well. These groups are more likely to be incarcerated, less likely to have a high school degree and further education, less likely to be homeowners and provide back to the economy, more likely to be falsely arrested, likelier to be arrested for the same crime, and more likely to have a parent in prison than a Caucasian.


Enforcing mandatory minimum sentencing laws have also cost the United States billions of dollars to enforce and has not even proven to be successful (“ACLU”, 2014). In summary, the continuation of this law is only a historical hindrance to the United States as discussed.


It has been shown that certain racial demographics are disproportionately incarcerated by the U.S. Judicial System.Through analyzing the original intent of mandatory minimum sentencing as well as its effects, it can be concluded that mandatory minimum sentencing only magnifies the racial disparity that has been present prior to mandatory minimums.  As a result, certain racial groups have experienced higher rates of incarceration under mandatory minimums as well as sentences longer than appropriate for the crime committed.  This has caused hindrance in economic growth, social development, and productivity for certain racial groups as well as the U.S. as a whole.


Looking back, mandatory minimum sentencing was first introduced in the Boggs Act of 1951 to increase uniformity in judicial sentencing during the War on Drugs.  This trend can be illustrated through the heavy incarceration bias in favor of Caucasians. It is shown that although the intentions of mandatory minimums were good, it is not an effective means of deterring racial disparity in sentencing.


But mandatory minimum sentencing is not to blame for this issue. The bias is deeply rooted in American history in the form of racial oppression. This just shows that sentencing under the US judicial branch shows racial bias and that measures must be taken against it.




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