Mandatory Sentencing Crowds Jails But Still Isn't A Big Campaign Issue

Bush favors status quo, while Kerry calls system wasteful.

Get caught trafficking drugs, go to jail. No ifs, ands or parole. Any questions?

That was the message behind Congress' 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The law created mandatory minimum penalties for first-time drug traffickers, which based jail time on the amount of drugs found. Carrying 5 grams of crack cocaine (the equivalent of about five sugar packets) would land you in jail for five years. Fifty grams? Ten years.

This get-tough system was simple in its agenda: Dealers would have to get accustomed to a life behind bars. Harsh penalties for those caught would also send a "we mean business" message to other dealers.

Yet nearly two decades later, a 2003 report by Human Rights Watch found that the United States continues to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than half of all federal inmates convicted of drug crimes. Of that number, 58 percent have no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.

President Bush favors the status-quo mandatory minimums as a way to control drug crimes and "punish those who deal in death." His Democratic opponent, John Kerry, wants to give judges discretion in sentencing rather than "one size fits all" justice. Kerry calls the current system wasteful in both human lives and tax dollars.

So why isn't Kerry talking about it more during his campaign?

"No lawmaker wants to be seen as soft on drugs," said Monica Pratt, spokesperson for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit organization created to challenge these legal penalties. "It prevents lawmakers from making good choices when it comes to good drug policy."

Critics of mandatory minimums cite a system where the hands of judges are effectively tied and parole is not an option. As it stands now, judges defer their sentencing authority to Congress's across-the-board formula, which means they aren't able to make special considerations regarding an individual defendant's case.

Another bone of contention is the disparity in drug types and measures that determine the minimum penalties. It takes 100 kilos (2.2 pounds) of marijuana or 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the five-year term, but only five grams of crack. Crack's low threshold was due to a purported link between the drug and violent crimes. Because cocaine is associated with more affluent users than crack, critics say there are racial and class consequences to the mandatory minimums.

In a 2002 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the federal government, found the current trigger ratio between cocaine and crack cocaine to be inappropriate and recommended revising the levels. The commission found that in 2000, three-quarters of federal crack cocaine offenders had no link to weapons. The biggest link seems to be between crack and race: 85 percent of crack offenders in 2000 were black. The commission warned that the current penalty scheme caused a perception of racial disparity that might foster distrust in the criminal system.

No action has been taken to implement any of the commission's recommendations since the 2002 report.

Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California is one lawmaker speaking out against mandatory minimums. She recently introduced legislation to repeal mandatory minimums in favor of restoring discretion to individual judges. Waters had introduced a similar bill before, but it was never voted on.

To learn more about how these laws and other drug rehabilitation efforts may be effected by the upcoming election tune in to MTV's Choose or Lose: 20 Million Loud . . . the Drug Show, beginning October 18 at 11:00 pm EST/PST.

To learn more about communities helping teens overcome drugs, alcohol and crime visit Reclaiming Futures or the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness.