What the Experts Say

Ed Meese, former U.S. Attorney General under President Reagan and Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation

“I think mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders ought to be reviewed. We have to see who has been incarcerated and what has come from it.”

U.S. Representative Bob Inglis (R-S.C.)

“Mandatory minimums wreak havoc on a logical system of sentencing guidelines. Mandatory minimums turn today’s hot political rhetoric into the nightmares of many tomorrows for judges and families.” 

U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.)

“Mandatory minimum sentences have been studied extensively and have been shown to be ineffective in preventing crime. They have been effective in distorting the sentencing process. They discriminate against minorities in their application, and they have been shown to waste the taxpayers’ money.” 

U.S. Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.)

“It doesn’t make sense to put away everybody, no matter how peripherally involved in drug dealing, for five years or 10 years.  Not only are such sentences morally troublesome, they threaten to sap the willpower we must maintain to deal with the true threats to society.” 

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.)

“I do…understand that some first-time, nonviolent offenders have been given mandatory minimum sentences, and I would consider supporting legislation to give judges flexibility in such cases.” 

Former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich

“There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential.  The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.” 

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

“As a physician, I believe that we ought to be doing drug treatment rather than incarceration.” 

President George W. Bush

“I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that maybe long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease.  And I’m willing to look at that.” 

President Bill Clinton

“I think the sentences in many cases are too long for nonviolent offenders… . Most judges think we should [do away with mandatory minimum sentences].  I certainly think they should be reexamined.  And the disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine….Our imprisonment policies are counterproductive.” 

President George H.W. Bush

“[Eliminating mandatory minimums] will result in better justice and more appropriate sentences.” 

William Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.  That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.” 

Sam Brownback, former Governor of Kansas

“We should not be resigned to allowing generation after generation to return to prison because they don’t have the tools to break the cycle. I personally favor a number of these faith-based approaches. But if there are other approaches, let’s try them. This is an enormous problem, and since the ’70s, we have basically just said we’ll lock people up.” 

Jodi Rell, former Governor of Connecticut

“We are closing a prison because of a decline in the inmate population, the agency’s success with a number of post-release programs, and the need to find savings and efficiencies in state government … Any decision such as this must always be made with public safety foremost in our minds … We face an extraordinarily difficult budget situation—a challenge unlike any we have known in modern memory … While other states—including states facing even more severe budget problems than our own—are being forced to build new prisons, we can make the most of our successes by building on these achievements.” 

Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia

“Public safety is our first priority.  In Georgia, if you are responsible for a serious, violent crime, we will put you away.  But research has identified new strategies, like drug courts, that are more effective and much less expensive than prison for many non-violent offenders.” 

Governor Rick Perry, Texas

“I believe we can take an approach to crime that is both tough and smart… [T]here are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore.  Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.” 

Governor Chris Christie, New Jersey

“[L]et us reclaim the lives of those drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime. By investing time and money in drug treatment — in an in-house, secure facility — rather than putting them in prison. Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison. And more importantly — as long as they have not violently victimized society — everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable. I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey. So today I ask this Legislature and the Chief Justice to join me in this commitment that no life is disposable. I propose mandatory treatment for every non-violent offender with a drug abuse problem in New Jersey, not just a select few. It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse — we want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value. Every one of God’s creations can be redeemed.” 

Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf

“I support legislation that would provide a safety valve for cases where the mandatory minimum sentence would be unjust.  … Just as I was once an advocate for harsher, longer sentences, I am now at the forefront of the movement to balance our criminal justice system in favor of more rehabilitation and judicial discretion. In Pennsylvania, we have recently made great progress with landmark alternative sentencing statutes, and I hope that soon mandatory minimums will be more widely accepted as an area in need of reform.” 

Mary Beth Heffernan, Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety

“We have the wrong people sometimes in the wrong beds. We need to do something around mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform so that we are able to provide treatment for people that need it and also incarcerate the worst of the worst which is incorporated in our habitual offender reform legislation. So we can do both. We can have good public safety but also use our resource dollars in a smarter way that doesn’t compromise public safety and make sure we do the right thing around corrections.” 

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council

“These people have committed crimes, but they’re still human beings, created in the image of God. Can we help them restore what’s left of their lives?” 

Justice Anthony Kennedy

“I’m against mandatory sentences.  They take away judicial discretion to serve the four goals of sentencing.  American sentences are eight times longer than their equivalents in Europe.  California’s 3-strikes law emanated from the electorate, and the sponsor of the initiative was the correctional officers association—and that is sick.  California has 185,000 people in prison, and the cost is astounding.” 

“I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences.  In too many cases mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and unjust. . .The legislative branch has the obligation to determine whether a policy is wise.  It is a grave mistake to retain a policy just because a court finds it constitutional.  Courts may conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, but that does not mean long sentences are wise or just…A court decision does not excuse the political branches or the public from the responsibility for unjust laws.” 

“Mandatory minimums are harsh and in may cases unjust.”  If the hypothetical example of an 18-year-old gets caught growing marijuana in the woods and happens to have a hunting rifle in his truck when arrested, he could face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years.  Now he shouldn’t be doing that, (but) an 18-yearold doesn’t know how long 15 years is.” 

Chief Justice William Rehnquist

“These mandatory minimum sentences are perhaps a good example of the law of unintended consequences. There is a respectable body of opinion which believes that these mandatory minimums impose unduly harsh punishment for first-time offenders…mandatory minimums have also led to an inordinate increase in the federal prison population and will require huge expenditures to build new prison space…they frustrate the careful calibration of sentences, from one end of the spectrum to the other, which the sentencing guidelines were intended to accomplish.” 

Justice Stephen G. Breyer

[More statutes containing mandatory minimum sentences are] “not going to advance the cause of law enforcement in my opinion and it’s going to set back the course of fairness in sentencing. . . . There has to be room for the unusual or the exceptional case.” 

Honorable Julie E. Carnes

“Unjust mandatory minimums  . . . have a corrosive effect on our broader society. To function successfully, our judicial system must have the respect of the public. The robotic imposition of sentences that are viewed as unfair or irrational greatly undermines that respect. . . [S]ome of these statutes do not produce merely questionable results; instead, a few produce truly bizarre outcomes.

Honorable Paul Cassell

“I express no view on mandatory minimum sentencing schemes in general.  But …one particular feature of the federal scheme – the ‘count stacking’ feature of § 924(c) for first-time offenders – has lead to an unjust result in this case and will lead to unjust results in other cases….The 55-year sentence mandated by § 924(c) in this case appears to unjust, cruel and irrational.” 

Honorable Robert Cindrich

“When the law provides a result that is repugnant, we must still follow the law. And you can only do that so many times before you start to wonder, ‘How many more times am I going to put my name on this sentence that I don’t believe in?’”

Honorable John S. Martin, Jr.

For most of our history, our system of justice operated on the premise that justice in sentencing is best achieved by having a sentence imposed by a judge who, fully informed about the offense and the offender, has discretion to impose a sentence within the statutory limits. Although most judges and legal scholars recognize the need for discretion in sentencing, Congress has continually tried to limit it, initially through the adoption of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. . . . For a judge to be deprived of the ability to consider all of the factors that go into formulating a just sentence is completely at odds with the sentencing philosophy that has been a hallmark of the American system of justice. 

Honorable J. Spencer Letts

“Statutory mandatory minimum sentences create injustice because the sentence is determined without looking at the particular defendant…. It can make no difference whether he is a lifetime criminal or a first-time offender. Indeed, under this sledgehammer approach, it could make no difference if the day before making this one slip in an otherwise unblemished life the defendant had rescued 15 children from a burning building or had won the Congressional Medal of Honor while defending his country.” 

Honorable Leon Higginbotham 

“We must remember we are not widgets or robots, but human beings. Defendants should be sentenced within the spectrum of what most judges would consider fair and reasonable.” 

Honorable David Doty

“I think that a lot of people do not understand what is going on until, all of a sudden, they are caught up in the system; and they find out that people have been mouthing all kinds of slogans, and when the slogans all come down to rest, they sometimes come to rest very hard on the shoulders of the individual.”

Honorable Paul A. Magnuson

“…I continue to believe that sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment under the circumstances of this case is unconscionable and patently unjust….[the defendant] will be sacrificed on the altar of Congress’ obsession with punishing crimes involving narcotics. This obsession is, in part, understandable, for narcotics pose a serious threat to the welfare of this country and its citizens. However, at the same time, mandatory minimum sentences – almost by definition – prevent the Court from passing judgment in a manner properly tailored to a defendant’s particular circumstances.

Honorable Joyce Hens Green

“As a consequence of the mandatory sentences, we (judges) know that justice is not always done…[Y]ou cannot dispense equal justice by playing a numbers game. Judgment and discretion and common sense are essential.” 

Honorable Stanley Sporkin

“We need to deal with the drug problem in a much more discretionary, compassionate way. We need treatment, not just punishment and imprisonment.”

Martha Stewart

“So many of the women here in [Federal Prison Complex] Alderson will never have the joy and wellbeing that you and I experience. Many of them have been here for years — devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family. I beseech you all to think about these women — to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking. They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life ‘out there’ where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills and no preparation for living.” 

Senator Rand Paul: “Our country’s mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer.” 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.” 

David Keene: “The [Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013] will improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and restore out constitutional separation of powers at the federal level while strengthening federalism. This is a reform conservatives should embrace.”

Ward Connerly, American Civil Rights Institute

“But one-size-fits-all punishments for crime are being widely used across the nation, and they’ve driven up the size of our prisons at an enormous cost to taxpayers. These punishments are called mandatory minimums and they force judges to impose mandatory prison time on offenders whose criminal behavior often spans extremes as mismatched as the little kid and the NFL giant.” 

“There is no question that violent and serious offenders like murderers, rapists, and child abusers need to be locked up for a very long time. They pose a real threat to society and deserve severe punishment for their crimes. But adopting the same approach through mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders like small-time drug offenders is counterproductive as it often leads to exploding costs and less public safety.”

Andrea Cabral, Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary

“I thought that mandatory sentences would provide some level of deterrence and give prosecutors a meaningful opportunity to temporarily put mid-level drug dealers out of business.

I was wrong.” 

Hon. William D. Delahunt, former U.S. Representative

“Mandatory minimums require the sentencing court to impose the same sentence on very different offenders when common sense and simple justice call for reasonable differences in punishment. In addition, mandatory minimums have proven to be a considerable waste of taxpayers’ money.” 

Pennsylvania State Senator Stewart Greenleaf

“I support legislation that would provide a safety valve for cases where the mandatory minimum sentence would be unjust.  … Just as I was once an advocate for harsher, longer sentences, I am now at the forefront of the movement to balance our criminal justice system in favor of more rehabilitation and judicial discretion. In Pennsylvania, we have recently made great progress with landmark alternative sentencing statutes, and I hope that soon mandatory minimums will be more widely accepted as an area in need of reform.”

Statements from these experts above do not constitute endorsement of Families Against Mandatory Minimums or its policies.