U.S. Mandatory Sentence Laws
A mandatory sentence is a court decision where people convicted of certain crimes must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of laws imposing disproportionate mandatory sentences of life without parole for simple possession of drugs.
Concerning federal prisons, Barbara S. Meierhoefer, a researcher for the Federal Judicial Center, stated in a 1992 report: “The proportion of black offenders grew from under 10 percent in 1984 to 28 percent of the mandatory minimum drug offenders by 1990; whites now constitute less than a majority of this group. This is a much more dramatic shift than found in the federal offender population in general.”
According to the Statistical Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties presented in October 2011, “[o]f all offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum punishment and who remained subject to that penalty at sentencing, 38.5 percent were Black, 31.8 percent were Hispanic, and 27.5 percent were White.”
Although “safety valves,” or exceptions to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, allow a judge to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum term if certain conditions are met, Black offenders consistently benefited less from them than any other group.