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.