Who knew that the sentencing of federal defendants had anything to do with spending on national defense? There is no connection, but Congress is well known for Christmas tree-style legislation, and the National Defense Authorization Act signed in October by President Barack Obama calls on the United States Sentencing Commission to study mandatory minimum sentences, which eliminate judicial discretion by requiring a minimum term of incarceration. The Commission advises federal judges on sentences, though any changes to mandatory minimums would have to be approved by Congress.

Partly due to mandatory minimums, the federal prison population has risen from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 today, as the Bureau of Prisons staff has increased from 10,000 to 36,000 employees. While some mandatory minimums concern crimes involving weapons, some of the 170 mandatory minimum laws concern drugs and other nonviolent offenses. In 2008, 21,023 offenders were convicted of crimes subject to mandatory minimums

The conservative late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist said mandatory minimums are “perhaps a good example of the law of unintended consequences.” Chief Judge Julie Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia testified before Congress in July that mandatory minimums sweep too broadly. She cited a mandatory minimum statute that would impose a 20-year sentence not only on the kingpin who had organized and operated an extensive drug trafficking ring, but also on the manual laborer hired to offload a shipment of that kingpin’s drugs.

Texas is not among the states with mandatory minimums, as probation is an option for every offense. As federal corrections costs continue to soar, this is an ideal time to re-examine mandatory minimums.

– Marc Levin