Finding answers to the mandatory minimum sentencing problem

This article looks at what’s wrong with North Carolina’s mandatory minimums and how to fix them.

North Carolina lawmakers, like legislators in many states, are currently looking at ways to reform the state's mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines while also addressing the ongoing opioid epidemic. As the News & Observer reports, the General Assembly's Task Force on Sentencing Reform for Opioid Convictions is hearing from a number of groups and individuals on how to reform North Carolina's drug laws in light of ballooning incarceration rates and high rates of opioid drug use. A primary target for the task force is undoing some of the damage caused by mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum sentences for drugs

Like many states, North Carolina passed a series of "tough-on-crime" drug laws in the 1980s and 1990s that were designed to discourage drug use. A primary feature of these drug laws were weight-based minimum sentencing guidelines. These guidelines essentially said that if an offender was caught with a certain amount of drugs on them, they would face a minimum sentence in prison. The minimums varied both by drug type and by weight.

While these guidelines were well-meaning, they had a number of drawbacks. For one, basing sentencing on weight alone doesn't take into account the offender's role in the crime. Instead of targeting powerful drug traffickers and distributors, the law tends to mean that low-level drug addicts end up getting lengthy prison sentences for relatively minor crimes.

Furthermore, these mandatory minimum sentences actually divert much needed resources away from fighting drug addiction. As PBS Newshour reports, the incarceration rate in the U.S. is about seven times higher than it is in Canada and Western Europe. As a result, the U.S. in 2016 spent over $265 billion on incarceration, money that could have been better spent on providing treatment for addiction.

What's the solution?

Some states, including Louisiana, have decided to scrap their mandatory minimum sentences for drug laws entirely. Other states, however, have opted for a more moderate approach called a "safety valve" exception.

The safety valve allows minimum sentencing guidelines to stay on the books, but it also gives the courts the power to deviate from those guidelines if circumstances warrant doing so. For example, a judge could choose to give a small-time drug dealer with no prior convictions and who has shown remorse for his crime a more lenient sentence if he or she agrees to seek treatment.

Criminal law help

Drug charges need to be taken extremely seriously since a conviction, as the above article shows, could lead to a lengthy prison sentence. Anybody facing such charges needs to talk to a defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney will be able to assist clients with their case and advocate for their best interests throughout this often confusing and overwhelming experience.