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Call to Abandon Mandatory Sentencing

American Psychological Association passes Resolution urging end to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession

On Aug. 16, the American Psychological Association passed a Resolution urging state and federal legislators to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing. At a Council of Representatives Meeting of the American Psychological Association held in San Francisco on Aug. 16, 1998, a Resolution was passed urging the phasing out of mandatory minimum sentencing laws on the federal and state level. The APA has a worldwide membership of 155,000 and is the largest association of psychologists in the world.

The following is a copy of the Resolution:


In their attempt to respond to the possession and sale of illegal drugs, the federal government and many state legislatures have imposed mandatory minimum prison sentences. This approach has backfired. As judicial discretion has been abandoned, the ideal of rehabilitation has receded. "Designed to suppress the drug trade," editorializes The New York Times (1998) "these sentences (rival) those for murder and rape...Instead of wiping out the drug markets, the laws (have) overloaded prisons and court dockets with addicts and low level couriers.

In a longitudinal study based on data from Jan. 1, 1984 through June 30, 1990, the average drug sentence increased 74%, from 68 to 118 months during the period studied (Meierhoefer, 1992). In a report, the Justice Dept. gauged that one of every 29 citizens, that is 5% of the population, can anticipate serving time in a Federal or State prison during their lifetime. The likelihood of being imprisoned is higher proportionately for blacks (16 %) and Hispanics (9%) than for whites (2%). At the current level, a newborn black male has a 1 in 4 chance of being imprisoned, while newborn Hispanic males face a 1 in 6 chance (U.S. Dept. of Justice Sourcebook, 1996).

The test of mandatory minimum sentencing is airtight. Judges are not allowed discretion in imposing 5, 10, 20, 40 and 50 years to life, without parole. The only variables are the amounts of drugs involved, prior offenses and whether a firearm was involved. Nothing else can be considered such as youth, addiction or social circumstances.

A primary myth of mandatory minimum sentences is that they are effective in fighting crime. "Criminals" are, after all, jailed for long periods, sometimes for life. Shouldn't the public expect crime to fall? Mandatory prison sentences, however, have not controlled drug abuse and illegal drug use remains an overwhelming presence among our youth.

Sentences for violent criminals are far less harsh than those for nonviolent first-time offenders. In fact, 10 year sentences with no parole are mandatory for possessing any of the following substances: 1 gm LSD; 100 kilos of plants of marijuana; 5 gm crack; 100 gm powder cocaine; 100 gm heroin; 10 gm methamphetamine; and 10 gm PCP. Compare this with the average Federal sentences of 5 years for manslaughter and 3.75 years for assault, both with parole allowed (U.S. Sentencing Commission). Mandatory minimum drug sentencing dictates that no mitigating facts can be considered and no parole.

A resolution adopted by the 12 Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals at its Judicial Conference voted to urge Congress to reconsider the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentences statutes and to restructure such statutes so that the U.S. Sentencing Commission can uniformly establish guidelines for all criminal statutes to avoid unwarranted disparities from the Sentencing Report Act (Title II of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Public Law 98-473).

The Correctional Association of New York in a background paper on the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform calculated that the cost in New York of keeping a confined drug offender in prison is $30,000 a year compared to $2,700 to $3,600 per year for most outpatient drug programs and $17,00 to $20,000 per year for residential programs.

New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has pointed out that the operation of the State's sentencing laws "has resulted in the incarceration of many offenders whose crimes arose out of their own addiction and for whom the costs of imprisonment would have been better spent on treating and rehabilitation." In the case of low-level street dealers, taxpayers funds would, according to the Court, have been "more productively and humanely directed toward prevention, through education and treatment of drug addiction."

The American Bar Association has passed a resolution condemning mandatory minimum sentences, and Human Rights Watch, a group that monitors international human rights violations, declared in its March 1997 newsletter that "Mandatory minimum sentences contravene the Universal Declaration of Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment."

It challenges psychology to respond to these "rigidly Draconian drug laws" (The New York Times, 1998). Scholars and practitioners have been distanced from their potential effectiveness as change agents in the establishment of rehabilitative programs and humane criminal justice policies (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998). The American Psychological Association has an opportunity to confront mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with its wide knowledge and practice base at a time when these laws are coming under increased scrutiny.


WHEREAS mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws reduce judicial discretion and require incarceration of offenders whose criminal behavior is limited to drug possession and use, and who may be first time offenders;

WHEREAS minor drug offenders receive harsh mandatory minimum sentences, regardless of their limited role in the offense, leaving the Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist (commenting on a first-time offender sentenced to life imprisonment) to call such mandatory drug sentencing good examples "of the law of unintended circumstances,"

WHEREAS convicted offenders with substance abuse problems typically are remanded to prisons that lack adequate substance abuse treatment and HIV prevention programs that are essential for drug abusers;

WHEREAS mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws have contributed significantly to the more than threefold increase in the U.S. prison population during the past decade and have disproportionately involved minorities and the poor, especially African American and Hispanic males;

WHEREAS research on the cost-effectiveness of different drug control strategies has shown that substance abuse treatment, even with its known limitations, is a cost-effective strategy to reduce drug use;

WHEREAS the U.S. federal drug control budget heavily favors interdiction approaches to the US. drug problem to the detriment of providing adequate funding for drug treatment and prevention;

WHEREAS research on cocaine dosage forms has shown that the differences in the severity of sentences for powder and crack cocaine are not based on supportable differences in the psychological or biological impact of those dosage forms;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the American Psychological Association supports in principle restoration of reasonable boundaries in mandatory drug sentencing laws, the phasing out of such laws at both the state and federal levels for drug-related offenses that do not involve drug trafficking and when no other offense or harm to others is involved, and the proper emphasis on prevention and treatment of substance-related problems as an alternative to and in addition to legal actions.

Passed, August 16, 1998

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