The Introduction of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

As drug use continued into the 1970s and 80s, so did enforcement highlighting a string of questionable legislative techniques used to punish offenders of the drug war.  Mandatory minimum sentencing bypasses the judicial process in a large way by providing a framework for jail sentences to people convicted of crime, regardless of the judicial process.   The history of mandatory minimum sentencing is derived from the Boggs Act of 1952 which made a first time possession offense of marijuana punishable by “two to ten years with a fine of $20,000” (Mandatory).  This was overridden by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which enacted different mandatory minimum sentences, including marijuana. “In 1973, New York State introduced mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for possession of more than 4 oz (112 g) of a hard drug” (Mandatory).

A popular metal band, System of a Down, released Prison Song in 2001 which contains a few verses denouncing the policy of mandatory minimum sentences and argues that this practice has led to a dramatic increase in prison populations rather than solve any problems related to drug use and abuse.  A few of these verses can be found below:

Following the rights movements
You clamped down with your iron fists,
Drugs became conveniently
Available for all the kids

All research and successful drug policy shows
That treatment should be increased,
And law enforcement decreased,
While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences,

Drug money is used to rig elections,
And train brutal corporate sponsored
Dictators around the world.

Although a somewhat radical decree, this popular band publicly lambasting the policy of the US government supports the dichotomy of rights and whether the government’s actions can be interpreted as improving life of citizens by making the streets ‘safer’ or if they overstepped their boundaries concerning privacy during the drug war.

Heather Ann Thompson argues that the process of laws meant to subject violators to unprecedented time behind bars and that the “dramatic postwar rise of the carceral state depended directly on what might well be called the criminalization of urban space“.  This process, according to Thompson, subjected increasing populations of urban dwellers–“overwhelmingly men and women of color”–to a series of laws that targeted their disposition as well as “regulated bodies and communities in thoroughly new ways” (Thompson 706).

Mandatory minimum sentencing has only supplemented the longstanding racism that pervades American culture and that, as Kenneth B Nunn highlights, since the judgment process is removed the judgment is placed upon police officers who, from a growing body of evidence, have been known, as American socialization has encouraged, to target blacks as more suspicious and more likely to engage in crime.  “To the extent that the concentration of investigation and arrests in African American communities exceeds that in white communities, without reason to believe that African Americans offend at a greater rate than whites, then such practices amount to unjustified ‘over- policing'” (Nunn).

Although the US Sentencing Commission, which regulates US sentencing, released a report that “notes the racial disparities in cocaine vs. crack sentencing” (Thirty) in 1995, Congress overrides their recommendation to reduce this discrepancy for the first time in history, alluding to a Congress content with allowing an unequal judicial process.

“Mandatory sentencing.” Wikipedia. 7 Nov. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation. 17 Nov. 2013 <;.

Nunn, Kenneth B. “The Drug War as Race War.” The Drug War as Race War. 17 Nov. 2013 <;.

System of a Down. “Prison Song.” Toxicity. 2001. YouTube.

“Thirty Years of America’s Drug War: A Chronology.” PBS. PBS. 14 Nov. 2013 <;.


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