Mandatory Minimum Sentences Explained

On June 19, 1986, basketball star Len Bias died from what was rumored to have been smoking crack. On June 25 1986, autopsy results showed Bias’s death resulted from cocaine.

On September 18 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was introduced in the House. On October 27, 1986, barely four months after Bias’s death, President Regan signed the bill into law.

The law created the now infamous 100-to-1 mandatory minimum sentence. Under the provision, someone with 50 grams of crack is automatically given a 10-year sentence. To earn the same 10-year sentence, a person possessing powder cocaine had to be caught with 5,000 grams. On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity to 18-to-1. It also eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack.

In 1985, there were about 35,000 people in federal prison, 9,500 of whom were in on drug charges. In 2016, there were about 195,000 people in federal prison. More than 85,000 of them were serving time for drug crimes. About three quarters of the federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses are black or Hispanic.

In 2011, the United States Sentencing Commission reported that only 11 percent of those given mandatory sentences for drug offenses were high-level participants in drug-related criminal activities.

In 2000, the federal prison budget was less than 3.7 billion dollars. In 206, it was less than five billion dollars. In 2016, the federal prison budget was 7.3 billion dollars.

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