Home Corrections Why Sessions’s Mandatory Minimums Directive is a Step Backwards
Why Sessions’s Mandatory Minimums Directive is a Step Backwards

Why Sessions’s Mandatory Minimums Directive is a Step Backwards


Note from the Author: Let me first state that this article has nothing to do with political party affiliation or choosing sides, but rather about the future of criminal justice reform from the academic perspective of a university professor. Please review this article in entirety and respond with a critical, yet objective mind.

By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

On May 12, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued what many have deemed controversial directives instituting stricter criminal sentencing guidelines. These changes represent a significant step backwards in our efforts towards reforming our nation’s criminal justice system.

Sessions’s memo directs federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, provable offense.” That is because “the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimums.” This directive, in essence, reinstates mandatory minimum sentencing and represents a significant departure from the initiatives towards criminal justice reform under the Obama administration, which had started to gain bipartisan support.

Sessions’s directives are not necessarily surprising or shocking since he has a longstanding reputation as being a zealous ultraconservative prosecutor, which as many know, is essentially the opposite of that of former Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama.

However, those of us who are criminal justice professionals should be concerned that this administration’s desire to pursue mandatory minimums has historically proven to be discriminatory towards minorities, ineffective at reducing crime, and quite costly to enforce.

The Problem with Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum sentencing stipulates that offenders sentenced under certain federal and state crimes are required to serve out predetermined minimum sentences. The specified term of imprisonment does not take into account any mitigating or extenuating factors such as the offender’s age, prior convictions, employment, and the offender’s amenability to treatment.

With mandatory minimums, the judge’s hands are essentially tied in that he or she must, by virtue of the law, sentence the offender to the mandatory minimum sentence regardless of any extenuating or mitigating factors associated with the crime or the offender.

[Related: Sentencing Bias: Why More Research is Needed]

One of the primary criticisms of mandatory minimums, especially in drug-related offenses, is that it has targeted and been disproportionately applied to minority groups, namely African Americans. The probability of incarceration at some point in an African American male’s life is currently one-in-three, yet the probability for a Caucasian male is 1-in-23, based on the most recent study from Bureau of Justice Statistics. The fact of the matter is that African Americans are disproportionately represented at every level of the criminal justice system from arrest to incarceration, which is an issue that undoubtedly warrants attention.

Mandatory Minimums and Drug Crimes

Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially when applied to drug crimes, has proven unsuccessful in reducing overall drug-related crime rates in the United States. If anything, this particular sentencing scheme has contributed, at least in part, to our nation’s already overcrowded correctional system.

A June 2017 Pew research analysis found that higher rates of imprisonment for drug offenses do not translate to lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths. These findings support previous research that “cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug use and related crime.”

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a costly, four-decade-old venture that has not produced the desirable outcomes in which it was intended. Take for instance, the opioid epidemic that we are valiantly trying to address today, but, by most accounts, failing miserably at.

The heroin epidemic has been raging for quite some time, but the recent introduction of Fentanyl and Carfentanil has made it deadlier than ever. Carfentanil is an elephant tranquilizer that is being cut with heroin on the streets. It is highly potent and said to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine. There is no denying that we are seeing increases in heroin-related overdoses across the country. Opioid use and abuse, specifically heroin, does not discriminate. There are no geographic, racial, religious, or socioeconomic boundaries that cannot be penetrated by heroin addiction.

[Related: Rehabilitation: A Shift in How the Criminal Justice System Addresses Drug Offenders]

Addiction is a public health concern that cannot be fought purely from a law enforcement or punitive front without having a rehabilitation component. The threat of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment are not deterrents to those in the throes of addiction.

Opposition to Sessions’s Stance

The LA Times emphasized that the policy introduced by Sessions threatens to halt a push for bipartisan criminal justice reform that has been led by some of Trump’s closest advisors and embraced by key Republicans on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Ky.), for example, have criticized the new policy, arguing that mandatory minimums have historically and disproportionately targeted minorities because of how different drugs are categorized under the law.

I echo the sentiments from The New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute focused on democracy and justice, which was quick to voice their concerns to CNN in response to Sessions’s directives. “That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration,” Inimai Chettiar, the center’s program director, told CNN. “It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”

To confirm that such rigorous stances on sentencing don’t work, one only has to look back four decades at the efforts of former administrations to curb drug use by putting more people in prison.

Historical Failures of the War on Drugs and Mandatory Minimums

The “War on Drugs” was initiated by former President Nixon. In June of 1971, Nixon increased both the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and enacted stringent crime control measures, including mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. Some speculate that Nixon’s “get tough” on crime stance targeted the antiwar left and African Americans, both of whom Nixon perceived to be in defiance of his administration. As we know, this was an era in American history admittedly plagued with civil unrest, an unpopular war, and rising drug use, particularly within mainstream, middle-class society.

[Related: Drug Abuse Recognition for Probation and Parole Officers]

The War on Drugs subsequently gained additional momentum under the Reagan administration, which was fueled, in part, by the hysteria surrounding crack cocaine, an inexpensive form of cocaine mostly confined to poor urban areas and used / abused predominantly by African Americans. In addition to crack cocaine, there was the emergence of the HIV / AIDS virus. Even though it was initially thought to only be contracted through sexual contact, predominantly within the homosexual community, research soon showed that the virus could also be contracted through the sharing of hypodermic needles among drug users. Drug users, and the traffickers supplying the drugs, became public enemy number one and the focal point for increased punitive sentencing guidelines.

Under the Clinton administration, the former democratic president initially advocated for drug treatment (i.e. rehabilitation) over incarceration during his 1992 campaign, but soon after taking office, Clinton reverted to the drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors; thereby introducing additional “get tough on crime” policies that some might say were actually more punitive in comparison to his predecessors.

When George W. Bush became president, he faced a drug war that America seemed to be losing. As a result, Bush responded with the militarization of domestic law enforcement, which targeted drug offenders (users and traffickers) in an attempt to curb drug use and trafficking.

Why the War on Drugs Won’t Work Today Either

Targeting major drug traffickers is where we need to focus our efforts. The overwhelming majority of drug users are nonviolent offenders who do not pose a threat to public safety. Incarceration leads to forced sobriety, but it does not necessarily address the psychological triggers that will likely lead to relapsing once the addict is released back into our nation’s communities. In fact, drug overdose deaths are rising faster than ever before.

Our criminal justice system should prioritize rehabilitating drug users rather than punishing them with long prison sentences. Not only would this reduce the problem of costly overcrowding in prisons, but it would eventually reform a flawed and discriminatory system. If history is anything to go by, Sessions’s mandatory minimum sentencing overhaul is a significant step backwards in our recent efforts towards reforming our nation’s criminal justice system.

mandatory minimumsAbout the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGC) with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings.

Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.


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  1. Great article with factual points that current administration needs to take to heart. Until the elite in our nation understand and identify with the effects on minorities (“the least of these”; “have nots”), we’ll continue to spiral back into policies that are more harmful than helpful. A lot of senseless acts like moral failures after Charlottesville abound while quietly actions to dismantle progress made over decades precipitate beyond control.

  2. I worked as a corrections officer. I have seen the negative effects of the war on drugs. A non violent drug offender has little chance to rebuild his life after serving a sentence for a drug felony. I believe this may be especially true for African Americans. There are just way to many serving time for non-violent crimes. I remember seeing the prison transport bus and thinking, wonderful, more black guys coming to prison. I believe this is part of a chain of events that has or is destroying the black community. The end being broken families and what must be a huge cost to taxpayers and society in general. I’m not an expert at anything. I’m just calling it like I see it.

  3. Okay, let’s be fair about it. Sentence all Caucasians that commit drug crimes to the maximum. If it still turns out that mostly non-caucasians are in jail I guess it’s because more non-caucasian commit the crimes. Especially in their own communities. Being soft on minorities just because they are minorities is a disasterous system and needs to stop.

  4. Set up machine guns at the border. Close the borders down. This is an invasion of our country by drug cartels. Drug smugglers should be given the death sentence. Let’s put a stop to it. We know who they are and where the drugs come from. Go get them!!! Live in a family plagued by drugs and you will alsi adopt the above attitude.

  5. One thing that has been sadly missing from this whole conversation is a discussion about the mental health/ illness aspect of drug abuse & addiction. As a retired mental health professional who is also the wife of a retired law enforcement officer, I have seen many sides of this issue. Those who refer to addicts as non-violent have obviously not seen first hand the psychosis associated with drug abuse, and the resultant violent behavior, the very behavior that results in their arrest. The training that most law enforcement and correction officers receive is sorely lacking in mental health techniques, as compared to mental health professionals. The end result is often an escalation of violent behaviors that subsequently results in physical injury or death of either party. “Suicide by cop” is only one example. In an attempt to reduce the number of clients housed in large mental health facilities, many addicts have been placed into outpatient care. This type of treatment allows the client/addict to come & go to treatment as they please. While I agree that current jail conditions are perhaps not an appropriate setting for treatment, it does remove them from society until they are clean of drugs in their system. Maybe, instead of blanket negativity regarding mandatory sentencing, some guidelines could be introduced to include mandatory inhouse treatment for the drug problems, for those not found to be distributors, then provide appropriate treatment centers. For even the mildest case of drug abuse, there is an underlying mental health issue that needs addressing if we are going to reduce recidivism.

  6. i know of many people who are on drugs. me at one time. and going to jail, you are just stuck with others like you. and all you do is talk about getting out and getting high again. there is no rehab. and they are non violent people. but tax payers pay so much to feed and give meds, ac, heat, beds to people who are just going to get out and do it all over again. a rehab program needs to be put in place for addicts. not jail. save jail for those who do crimes that physically hurt others. not those who have mental or physical problems.

  7. Being locked up the offenders share information with each other for example they meet more suppliers get out and have more ways to get larger supply in their mind that is normal cause that’s way they know how to survive I believe mandatory double time for police officers who get caught breaking law might slow down crooked cops and suppliers selling to children should be zero tolerance.


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