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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Cost of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

More than half of all prisoners in the United States are low level drug offenders, the byproduct of creating mandatory minimum sentence laws for drug crimes in the 1980s. The advent of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes turned people caught with even small amounts of drugs into felons overnight, placing them behind bars for years, and making it virtually impossible for such people to rise above their label as a drug felon.

This is a moniker that makes it next to impossible for the vast majority of drug related felons to get a good paying job. Felons lose their right to vote in elections both in jail and on parole, and due to the high recidivism rates in America very few drug felons ever see the inside of poll booths again.

The reality of the situation is that mandatory minimum sentences do more harm than good, not only for those incarcerated but for the rest of society. While on the surface such laws appear to be keeping the streets clean, the heavy toll they place on the nation as a whole is astronomical. The U.S. went from spending about $540 million on federal prisons in 1980, to over $6.8 billion in 2013 - 12 times as much, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

If the majority of that budget goes to housing and supervising mostly non-violent drug offenders, then clearly there is a problem with mandatory minimum sentences. Fortunately, two senators have devised a bill that, if passed, will open up doors for people released from prison after serving a sentence for a non-violent drug offense.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, are co-sponsors of The REDEEM Act, according to MSNBC. The bill follows in the wake of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s vote to reduce terms for low-level drug offenders who are already incarcerated. If congress allows the reduction to take place, as many as 46,000 drug offenders could be eligible for release.
 
The REDEEM Act would reform criminal background checks' laws, making it easier for many to find better employment upon release. The bill would also make it possible for people with low-level drug felonies to apply for federal welfare benefits if they complete a substance abuse treatment program.

There is a lot more that needs to be done, but this is definitely a step in the right direction of no longer making social pariahs out of people with substance abuse problems.

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