As Federal Support for Curbing Mandatory Minimums Grows, New Report Examines State-Level Reforms and Their Impact

As Federal Support for Curbing Mandatory Minimums Grows, New Report Examines State-Level Reforms and Their Impact


Report is first in a series of Vera publications and events tied to the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1994 Crime Bill


NEW YORK, NY — In a speech delivered to the American Bar Association last August, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed U.S. Attorneys to refrain from using “draconian mandatory minimum sentences” in response to certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenses—remarks he reinforced in a speech at a January 11, 2014 conference on bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, co-sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. This position reflected a growing shift away from mandatory prison sentences, the centerpiece of federal crime control policy for the last four decades.

There has also been significant reform to mandatory sentencing at the state level, as outlined in Playbook for Change? States Reconsider Mandatory Sentences, a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice. The report summarizes state-level mandatory sentencing reforms since 2000, raises questions as to their effectiveness and impact, and offers recommendations to states and localities considering similar efforts in the future. The report also features an infographic timeline that traces the key events in the history of mandatory sentences starting in 1973 with the enactment of New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws.

Mandatory penalties—such as mandatory minimum sentences, automatic sentence enhancements, or habitual offender laws—require sentencing courts to impose fixed terms of incarceration for certain crimes or when certain statutory criteria are satisfied, including the type or level of offense, the number of previous felony convictions, the use of a firearm, the proximity to a school, and in the cases of drug offenses, the quantity (as calculated by weight) and type of drug.

During the 1980s and 1990s, mandatory sentences were viewed as effective weapons in combating crime, particularly drug crimes.

Many states, however, are viewing reform as a way to foster a fairer and more just system, eliminate racial disparities that disproportionately affect minority communities, develop alternatives to incarceration such as treatment and community-based sentences, and reduce corrections costs. These reforms have been embraced on both sides of the aisle, indicating that a consensus is emerging that mandatory penalties may not be appropriate for certain types of offenders. They are also receiving bipartisan support at the federal level, with two additional reform bills being considered by Congress this legislative session—the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act.

At least 29 states have instituted some form of mandatory sentence reform since 2000, including:

  • New York – Passed legislation in 2009 that eliminated mandatory minimums in low-level drug cases and reduced minimum mandatory penalties in other cases. Since 2008, the number of drug offenders in prison has decreased by 43 percent. The state has closed 15 prisons since 2009.
  • California – Passed legislation in 2012 that revised the state’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which imposed a mandatory life sentence on offenders convicted of their third felony offense, regardless of its seriousness. The new law limits the imposition of a life sentence to when the third felony conviction is serious or violent, and allows courts to resentence those convicted under the original law. Since November 2012, 1,011 people have been released from prison, and the state estimates it saved more than $10 million in the first nine months of implementation.
  • Michigan – Passed several laws in 2002 eliminating mandatory sentences for most drug offenses and placing these drug offenses within the state’s sentencing guidelines. From 2002 to 2010, the state closed 20 prison facilities and reduced corrections spending by 8.9 percent. From 2003 to 2012, serious violent and property crimes dropped by 13 and 24 percent, respectively.
“Locking up nonviolent offenders and throwing away the key does nothing to address the underlying cause of their criminal behavior and adds to the rising corrections costs plaguing many state budgets,” said Peggy McGarry, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Backed by decades of research demonstrating that longer sentences have only a marginal effect in reducing recidivism and that many offenders can be safely and more effectively supervised in the community, more and more states are revisiting tough-on-crime sentencing policies in pursuit of a fairer, more cost efficient justice system.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Crime Bill. To examine the legacy of this landmark federal legislation, the lessons learned, and the path ahead, Vera is convening a series of conversations with experts and policymakers in Washington, DC, as well as issuing a series of reports on sentencing trends—where the states stand on mandatory minimums and other sentencing practices and the resulting collateral consequences. This report is the first in that series. Look for updates on our website at