Reforming Mandatory Minimums

The Problem

Mandatory minimum, three strikes you’re out, and truth in sentencing laws are typically overly punitive. They often impose excessively long sentences for crimes. Their consequences are felt throughout the country: The average prison stay has increased 36 percent since 1990. The federal inmate population grew more than 400 percent since the late 1980s; now, their prisons are 39 percent beyond capacity.

Research has shown that increasing time served does not help keep the public safe. Studies show that longer sentences have minimal or no benefit on future crime. Even worse, research shows a strong correlation between increased prison time and repeat offenses, meaning prison may create more serious and violent offenses when overused. For example, a 2002 study indicates that sentencing low-level drug offenders to prison may increase the likelihood they will commit crimes upon release. Research from the Arnold Foundation indicates that longer pretrial detention is associated with new criminal activity even after the case is resolved.

Our Solution

Law Enforcement Leaders members support reforming mandatory minimum laws. We urge Congress and state legislatures to reduce mandatory minimum sentences set by law, and also reduce maximum sentences. We will identify and speak out against unnecessarily harsh and counterproductive laws. Judges should be allowed more flexibility in sentencing and the discretion to determine appropriate punishments. With proportional sentences, we can reduce both sentence lengths and the likelihood individuals will commit further crimes.


Several states have done this while continuing to see crime fall to historic lows:

  • New York. New York State passed the “Rockefeller drug laws,” imposing harsh mandatory sentences for drug possession in 1973. As a direct result, the state’s prison population increased six-fold with striking racial disparities. In 2009, to slow the growth of its prison system, New York removed the law’s mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses, choosing instead to allow judges to use their discretion to determine appropriate sentence lengths or decide to send someone to treatment instead. Since 2009, the number of people sent to prison and the length of sentences has declined statewide. Sentencing disparities between minority and white defendants also narrowed by one-third. Now, those sent into treatment have only a 36 percent chance of committing a repeat offense, versus 54 percent for those incarcerated before the new law went into effect.
  • Kentucky. In 1992, Kentucky enacted a series of laws triggering mandatory minimums for drug possession within 1,000 yards of schools. In many urban communities, this covered virtually every neighborhood, leading to an inflation of the state’s prison population. Worse still, these laws did little to secure public safety, instead fiercely punishing community members for low-level and nonviolent drug possession. In 2011, Kentucky passed HB 463, which limited the use of mandatory minimums to within 1,000 feet of schools rather than 1,000 yards. It reinvested the savings from the reduced prison costs into drug treatment services. In one year, the prison population dropped by more than 1,400 people, saving the state $20,000 per person annually. Kentucky’s crime rate is still at an all-time low.