Over the last decade, the majority of states have taken steps to reform or limit mandatory sentencing laws, signaling a shift in a decades-long approach to combatting crime, according to a report recently released by the Vera Institute of Justice.
Starting in the 1970s, mandatory sentences were introduced to tackle crime, especially in drug-related offenses. In 1973, New York enacted a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life for the possession of a hard drug. As other states adopted similar laws, courts were required to use fixed sentences for certain crimes instead of allowing cases to be evaluated on an individual basis.
The report, however, shows that states have been changing those laws, especially in recent years. Since 2000, the study found that at least 29 states passed legislation limiting or eliminating mandatory sentencing practices.
“It’s a seismic shift in the way we look at punishment,” Ram Subramanian, senior program associate at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and lead author of the report, told JJIE.
“We’re at a juncture where we’re moving far away from the tough-on crime experiment,” he said.
Subramanian says states are revisiting mandatory sentencing policies for both fiscal and practical reasons. State budgets have been in crisis, especially during the Great Recession, and a growing body of research has shown that longer sentences have little effect on recidivism rates and crime.
The report outlines bills introduced in each state, from Hawaii to Oklahoma. The changes range from including “safety valve provisions” in their laws — a provision that allows courts to sentence below the required minimum — to eliminating mandatory sentences as a whole.
The report details changes to the adult system, but it also addresses how crimes committed as a juvenile impact adult sentencing.
In 2010, for example, Louisiana passed a law limiting automatic sentence enhancements regarding juvenile sentences. Under the new law, juvenile delinquency sentences for a violent crime or a high-level drug crime can no longer be used to add to a felony conviction.
On the adult side, the report also found that in Michigan the Legislature passed several laws in 2002 removing fixed sentences for most of its drug offenses. The state has since shut down 20 prison facilities and decreased its spending on corrections by 8.9 percent, according to the report.
In 2009, New York passed legislation that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences in low-level crimes. The report found that since 2008, the number of drug offenders has decreased by more than 40 percent. The state has closed 15 prisons since the bill passed.
Support for changing mandatory sentencing has been growing at the federal level. In August, United States Attorney General Eric Holder decried “mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders,” calling the practice “draconian,” and implored attorneys to change policies.
In this current session, Congress is looking at two pieces of legislation that would scale back minimum sentencing and allow courts to impose its own penalties — the Smarter Sentencing Act and Justice Safety Valve Act.
However, the report makes a series of recommendations to policy-makers in moving forward with changes. Subramanian notes there is still little research on the impact of these state reforms, and recommends officials to collect data on outcomes on recidivism and costs. The report also recommends policymakers to consider whether reforms should apply to offenders retroactively.
Read the full report here.