A poll released Wednesday by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) found broad support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders and a majority who said they would vote for politicians who acted to end them. The poll results challenge the longstanding conventional wisdom that politicians need to be "tough on crime" to win elections.
According to the poll conducted by StrategyOne, an independent public opinion research firm, 78% thought the courts -- not Congress -- should determine how long people convicted of offenses should be imprisoned. Solid majorities also supported ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders (59%) and voting for congressional candidates who would act to end mandatory minimum sentencing (57%).
"Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear 'tough on crime' to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it's just not true," says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM. "Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums. Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines."
"This poll suggests that a majority of Americans are open to re-examining this issue and moving to a court-driven sentencing model," said Sparky Zivin, research director at StrategyOne.
"I am amazed that such a high number of people even understood the difference between Congress doing sentencing and the courts doing it," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that focuses on freeing federal drug war prisoners. "I didn't think that many people would agree, but it seems that the public has grasped that crime has been politicized. That leads me to believe we will probably see a much greater understanding of what's wrong with our punitive drug laws and what's wrong with prohibition."
The poll results show that while politicians largely remain wedded to the "tough on crime" philosophy and the notion that it helps them win elections, the public is going in a different direction, said Callahan. "It's very dramatic; it's astonishing," she said. "This is very far from what the politicians are thinking; we are seeing that there is a huge gap there."
But even on Capitol Hill, there are a few voices calling for radical sentencing reform. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has, since his election in 2006, been leading the charge. Webb has already held two hearings on sentencing and drug policy issues and will hold a third next month.
"America is locking up people at astonishing rates. In the name of 'getting tough on crime,' there are now 2.2 million Americans in federal, state, and local prisons and jails and over 7 million under some form of correction supervision, including probation and parole. We have the largest prison population in the world," said Webb in a statement included in FAMM's press release announcing the poll results. "This growth is not a response to increasing crime rates, but a reliance on prisons and long mandatory sentences as the common response to crime. It is time for America's leadership to realize what the public understands -- our approach is costly, unfair and impractical."
Webb is not alone. Even on the Republican side of the aisle, there are signs of support for sentencing reform. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) is one GOPer who is ready for change.
"Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines," said Inglis. "Mandatory minimums turn today's hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families."
In addition to releasing the poll results Wednesday, FAMM also released a comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons From the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which details how Congress created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders in 1951 and repealed them in 1970 because the laws failed to stop drug abuse, addiction and trafficking. The politicians involved in overturning mandatory minimums in 1970 had no problem getting reelected, the report notes.
The report also looked at the rebirth of mandatory minimum sentencing in the fear-ridden 1980s and charts the ways they have been ineffective and counterproductive. According to the report, mandatory minimums:
* Have not discouraged drug use in the United States.
"Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story. Republicans and Democrats alike don't want these laws. They don't work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can. Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn't just doable, it's doable right now," said Molly Gill, author of the report.
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the mid-1980s, when some of the most draconian mandatory minimum drug laws were passed. He has been working to undo them ever since.
"In 1986, we got stuck with some of the most punitive, least effective criminal sentencing laws ever created, said Sterling. "Mandatory minimums haven't stopped the drug trade. They haven't locked up the big dealers and importers. They're applied to small fries, not kingpins. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars to lock up a street-level dealer for 10 years when that money could be spent on treatment, drug courts, or going after the people bringing in boatloads of drugs every year. Getting rid of mandatory minimums is about getting our priorities straight."
"Mandatory minimums are among the worst criminal justice policies ever adopted in this country," said FAMM's Stewart. "They treat all offenders the same, when the most sacred principle of American sentencing law is that punishment should fit the individual and the crime. Repealing these laws isn't impossible -- it's been done before. The next Congress should do it again," she said.
FAMM's report offers two options for dealing with mandatory minimums: Repealing them outright while leaving federal sentencing guidelines in place, which would allow for judicial discretion, or expanding the "safety valve," under which judges can ignore mandatory minimums in some circumstances.
With the US economy and federal budget under unprecedented pressure, and with elections looming that could dramatically alter the political landscape, the time for radical sentencing reform may be drawing nigh, but reformers aren't counting their chickens just yet.
"There could be a window opening," said the November Coalition's Callahan. "I won't start holding my breath until we see how the elections play out, but we're working hard and preparing to work even harder the next four years."
While a poll isn't going to change the mind of Congress, she said, it creates an opening, both with politicians and the public at large. "With these numbers, I can think of a lot of new ways to talk to people," she said. "Activists tend to think that people don't get it, but this poll shows that people do get it, and now people are even more cynical about their leaders. This helps create a definite climate for achieving reform."
Full Report & Poll: Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums; from FAMM (US), 9/24/08
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