Criminal Justice

8 Out of 10 Americans Favor Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Nonviolent Offenders


The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds nearly eight out of 10 Americans—77 percent—favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges instead have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis. Only 17 percent of Americans oppose the idea. Support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences has increased by 6 percentage points since Reason-Rupe asked this question in December 2013.

The federal government and a number of states have enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws over the past few decades, most of which were applied to drug offenses. These laws require judges to sentence offenders convicted of certain crimes to a minimum term of imprisonment, regardless of whether or not the judge agrees the sentence is in the best interest of justice. These types of sentencing laws prohibit judges from evaluating the circumstances of individual cases and assigning the punishment they find most appropriate.

Instead, mandatory minimums transfer sentencing authority from judges to prosecutors, who pressure defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence, rather than go to trial and risk receiving a much longer mandatory minimum sentence if convicted. According to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission, an average of 98.7 percent of offenders who were convicted of a federal drug offense pleaded guilty in FY 2013 to avoid going to trial.

The poll found that Americans of all races and political parties favor eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and that support among all groups has grown since the end of last year.

When Reason-Rupe asked this question in December 2013, 74 percent of Democrats favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while 72 percent of Independents and 68 percent of Republicans agreed. This time around, 81 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Republicans supported eliminating mandatory minimums in favor of judicial discretion.

The results for this question were similar among Americans of different races/ethnicities as well. Seventy-seven percent of whites, 80 percent of African Americans, and 73 percent of Hispanics favored eliminating mandatory minimums. When this question was asked in 2013, 71 percent of whites, 69 percent of African-Americans, and 75 percent of Hispanics were in favor. 

These results only demonstrate that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of returning sentencing discretion to judges and do not indicate whether or not Americans support the type of lengthy prison terms mandatory minimum sentencing laws require for nonviolent offenders. But they at least make clear that public opinion no longer favors the status quo. Simply put, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders are becoming increasingly unpopular and harder to defend.

NEXT: Obamacare Expected to Make Tax Season Even More Interesting

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I bet we’ll see another swing of the pendulum. Instead of reducing (or eliminating) penalties for nonviolent offenders, they’re going to reduce sentences for *everyone,* so we can be Just Like Europe, and violent offenders will get out earlier.

    I actually hope I’m full of shit on this one, but the current crop of “over-incarceration in USA” stories often doesn’t distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes.

    1. We have to let out the murderers and rapists so that we still have room for the potheads.

  2. I see we had another article posting binge this afternoon. Everyone shooting for a 3 day weekend? Now we can look forward to most of these being reposted over the next week since nobody is going to read them all now.

    1. Not a complaint. Just an observation.

  3. Democracy? We don’t need no stinking democracy.

  4. This is a dumb poll.
    Though I am sure Reason/Rupe does, many people don’t consider drug dealers as nonviolent criminals.
    You need to be clear in the terms you use before you can rely on the results of a poll.

    1. “many people don’t consider drug dealers as nonviolent criminals.”

      Huh? Nonviolent = not convicted of a violent crime. Everybody knows what “violent” means. If some dude was selling crack on the street corner, that’s not “violent”. If that dude was also going around threatening to kill people and/or assaulting people to further his crack-dealing business, that is “violent”. Not a difficult distinction, really.

  5. If 8 out of 10 agree, shouldn’t that be considered a mandate? Hmmm.

    These poor souls have been locked up, stripped of their pursuit of happiness and raped by a brutal system. People on the outside can’t possibly appreciate this, but for any of these people in jail, one more day is too long to wait for the wheels of justice to turn in their favor.

    Is it too much to ask that government at all levels get together and fast-track a stop to the madness? Yes, unfortunately it would be impossible to right this monstrous, institutionalized wrong in even a slightly meaningful time frame. That’s why we ought to be able to rely on the humanity of just fifty people to make this shit go away, while the entrenched system drags on interminably to erase the stupidity off the books.

    Fifty people – the governors of every state with their pardoning powers – could go a long way toward fixing this abomination literally overnight. How about some movement afoot? Come on, which governor wants to be the first! Set and example! Get on the right side of history for a change! Come on, for a fucking change!

  6. As I was paying my 240 dollar ticket for going 45 in a 35 I got to wondering why tickets are so insanely high. A similar ticket in Germany was around $15. I can’t recall anyone ever running on the platform of higher tickets. Not one time have I heard anyone complain tickets are too low, yet the prices keep going up.

    1. The city needs money. Raising penalties for speeding is much easier than raising property taxes. And the ticket fees come in all year, not just at tax time.

      Also, check your paperwork. Lots of the time you’ll be paying a bunch of extra fees in addition to a reasonable penalty. Lots of places extort a few bucks for a crime victim reimbursement fund, for instance. Then there’s “court costs.”

    2. Here in North Dakota, I got a speeding ticket last year (66/45). The fine: $21.

  7. Dear Reason/Rupe:

    We are not idiots.

    Please change this sentence
    “The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds nearly eight out of 10 Americans?77 percent?”

    “The latest Reason-Rupe poll finds 77 percent?”

    I will be the one to judge what 77 percent “nearly” represents. In my opinion, 77 percent is “nearly” 78 percent but is “hardly” 8 out of 10, and so on.

    This is not the first time you’ve used this kind of USA today poll reporting. Please bear in mind your audience.

  8. While I think the lengthy prison terms imposed for certain non-violent offenses are ridiculous, I don’t have an objection to mandatory minimums in principle. Giving the judge too much discretion in sentencing opens the door to all kinds of injustice. Judges are human, and subject to cognitive biases just like the rest of us. Attractive, charming defendants are more likely to evoke sympathy. Other, uglier biases (prejudice, etc.) might also come into play. Even if a judge is on guard against these biases, the electorate to which he is accountable (in the case of an elected judge) is likely to be swayed by these factors. A good-looking young white defendant with puppy-dog eyes would probably be in a much better position, all else equal, than if he were a black man with beady eyes and severe acne scars.

    I’m not saying we need to perpetuate our practice of imposing harsh mandatory sentences over offenses as trivial as marijuana possession, etc. I am, however, saying that *lighter* minimum sentences would probably be more appropriate for certain categories of crime than simply leaving it up to the judge.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.