Sentencing Reform

January 10, 2014 • Volume 24, Issue 2
Are mandatory sentences too harsh?
By Sarah Glazer


During demonstrations in Washington, a protester calls on President Obama to fund job-creation and economic development programs (AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb)
During demonstrations in Washington on June 17, 2013, a protester calls on President Obama to fund job-creation and economic development programs in inner cities and end the “war on drugs,” which critics say leads to mass incarceration of African-Americans and unduly harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes. (AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb)

A rash of federal and state laws in the 1980s and '90s — an era of crack cocaine-fueled violence and “tough-on-crime” rhetoric — introduced lengthy automatic prison sentences. In the laws' wake, many low-level nonviolent drug offenders have been locked up for long periods, contributing to prison overcrowding and state budget deficits. Putting young people behind bars for the majority of their lives as punishment for a youthful error is inhumane, human rights and civil liberties groups say. At least 30 states have rolled back their harshest laws, and several bipartisan proposals in Congress would relax federal sentencing mandates. Prosecutors contend the threat of mandatory sentences induces defendants to cooperate with their investigations of criminal networks and reduces crime. But reformers, including some prominent conservatives, contend drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration are cheaper than prison and more effective at reducing crime. States such as Texas and New York have closed prisons and still boast declining crime, but key congressional Republicans are skeptical of sentencing reform.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 12, 2019  Bail Reform
Oct. 19, 2018  For-Profit Prisons
Mar. 03, 2017  Women in Prison
Jan. 10, 2014  Sentencing Reform
Sep. 14, 2012  Solitary Confinement
Mar. 11, 2011  Downsizing Prisons
Dec. 04, 2009  Prisoner Reentry
Apr. 06, 2007  Prison Reform
Jan. 05, 2007  Prison Health Care
Sep. 17, 1999  Prison-Building Boom
Feb. 04, 1994  Prison Overcrowding
Oct. 20, 1989  Crime and Punishment: a Tenuous Link
Aug. 04, 1989  Can Prisons Rehabilitate Criminals?
Aug. 07, 1987  Prison Crowding
Nov. 25, 1983  Prison Overcrowding
Feb. 26, 1982  Religious Groups and Prison Reform
Jun. 18, 1976  Criminal Release System
Mar. 12, 1976  Reappraisal of Prison Policy
Oct. 20, 1971  Racial Tensions in Prisons
Oct. 13, 1965  Rehabilitation of Prisoners
Oct. 09, 1957  Prisons and Parole
May 02, 1952  Penal Reform
Jan. 30, 1937  The Future of Prison Industry
May 08, 1930  Prison Conditions and Penal Reform
Civil Rights and Civil Liberty Issues
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
Domestic Issues
Drug Abuse
Federal Courts