Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policies for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policies for Non-Violent Drug Offenders



The Federal mandatory minimum sentencing policies have existed since the dawn of the United States of America. Several mandatory minimums were enacted, when the first congress assembled, each of them being termed as a capital offense. The first to five years, the mandatory minimum policy was enacted in 1914 when congress established a minimum of five years for possessions of opium (Hawkins, 2017). Shortly after the middle century, congress started increasing the number of drug-related mandatory minimums. Before the enactment of Controlled Substances Import and Export Act and the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, the federal law policies included; mandatory minimums for smuggling marijuana or narcotics, violations of the marijuana or narcotics tax regimes, distribution of heroin to children, violations of federal drug policies through the use of communication facilities and possession of narcotics aboard United States vessel (Saris, 2015). However, the 1970 legislation eliminated all of these mandatory minimums leaving the mandatory minimums in the continued criminal enterprise section.

In reaction to the increase in the number of narcotics smuggled into the country and the addiction of cocaine epidemic proportions during the 1980s, the congress, as well as many state legislatures, adopted new policies. These policies stiffened the penalties, including mandatory jail terms for individuals convicted for nonviolent possession and drug trafficking of certain amounts of narcotics (Van der Geest et al., 2016). While the policies were supported by the majority of the citizens, they, however, exhibited some shortcomings and repercussions that majorly affected the professionals involved and the public. The policy was viewed as inherently biased against a specific group of Americans. The laws became like part of systematic racism against the people of color.

In the past few years, there have been several ongoing basic critiques of the mandatory minimum policies, which have become widely accepted. According to Ulmer, Painter-Davis & Tinik (2016), the laws do not incorporate the theories of retribution, and thus, they do not accomplish the conventional, accepted goals of punishment. Generally, mandatory minimum sentencing does not accomplish the vital objectives in the United States Criminal Justice System. They have failed to prove effective and efficient consequential or deterrence incapacitation, although they offer clarity and certainty of punishment. Often time the conviction and clarity of punishment are not mostly associated with deterrence. Despite the mandatory minimum policies for non-violent drug offenders being enacted to helping in responding to the public outcry on drug offenses, the crimes have been increasing because criminals d not use them in balancing the benefits and costs during of the outcomes.

Over decades the nonviolent drug offenders have a significant focus in social work since the issue of drug offense has been prevalent and broad in the United States. This paper examines the history and present conditions of social work with the nonviolent drug offenders’ population. Different perspectives on mandatory minimum sentencing will also be crucial in reviewing the shortcomings and long-term repercussions of the policies. There is a need for updated policies to assimilate and reintegrate non-violent participants of the drug trade and different interventions aside the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders.

Literature Review

Strict penalties have been imposed on individuals found in possession, consumption, and distributing drugs with the current mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Non-violent drug offenders are regarded as individuals found to be in possession or consume illegal drugs but are not inherently violent (Taxy, Samuels & Adams, 2015). They are considered a risk to public safety, especially when they consume illegal substances. Since felonies and misdemeanors only take this into account, heavy sentencing is still imposed on the nonviolent offenders due to the perception of actions attributed by the substances. Based on the charges, the offenders often end up in prison for many years despite being defended by their lawyers. Nonviolent offenders receive harsh punishments as a result of the legal practices that have been put in place (Saris, 2015). The policies have pushed for worse punishments imposed on the nonviolent drug offenders much greater and further than they have been recommended by the officials. However, the penalties have led to major effects not only to the offenders but also to their loved ones making them think twice about the implementation of the policies and laws on mandatory minimum sentencing.

The laws are perceived not to be well thought out during the enactment process. Scholars argue that the laws were enacted in response to the increase in drug offenses in the country along with the increasing public rage and outcry. The laws seem to be developed to react to the public rather than essentially coming up with measures that would curb the problem of drug crime in the country (Gottlieb, 2017). Furthermore, the constant improvements on the laws are triggered by the need to react to the ever-changing public perception of how the government deals with drug offenses. Consequently, the policies have not accomplished the goal of dealing with nonviolent drug offenses effectively, but instead, they have led to prison overcrowding and more drug crimes in the country.

The effects of the mandatory minimum sentence are evident, especially to the African-American community. Brisman (2015) alludes that compared to other races, more Hispanic and African-American males are likely to obtain mandatory minimum sentences. The main reason behind this is because the judges attribute greater seriousness on the African-American male despite not being specifically disadvantaged in the perpetrator’s designs. Findings from other research reveal that the policies have worsened the problem of single parenting among the African-American household (Hawkins, 2017). As more African-American males have become subjects to the mandatory minimum sentences, they tend to leave behind children and wives. African-American males are more likely to face imprisonments as a result of drug offense due to the increase in unemployment rates. The prevalence of unemployment among the African Americans resulting from the fact that more employment opportunities are available in the suburbs, leaving the other communities with little wage employment opportunities.

The war on nonviolent drug crimes has been lost with more prisons are overcrowding because of mandatory minimum sentencing. Since 1999, approximately 2 million Americans have been incarcerated with women being seven times more since 1980, largely as a result of mandatory sentences (Taxy, Samuels & Adams, 2015). The outcome of incarceration has led to motherless children. Not only has overcrowding become a problem for the Department of Corrections (DOC), it has also affected the inmates. Due to overcrowding cases of violence among the inmates has increased due to fewer spaces. In county jails, prisoners complain of inadequate exercise, unbearable noises, and poor ventilation. There is a need for other ways of fighting drug offenses to decrease overcrowding in jails. The prosecutors and judges, therefore, have the desecration of deciding what charges and penalties should be imposed on nonviolent criminal offenders since their cases are minor and can be dealt with without imprisonment.

The establishment of mandatory minimum sentence policies on non-violent drug offenders is of great interest to the social work profession. Social workers have a crucial role to play in criminal justice service delivery. They are the stakeholders to national movements that establish reforms of how nonviolent drug offenses are processed. The historical advocacy in social work profession especial to nonviolent drug offenders who have no political power and limited resources requires the involvement of social work in drug reform policy (Harris & White, 2018). Social workers are expected to advocate for programs and policies that address over-incarceration. This is done by diverting the nonviolent drug offenders from imprisonment alternative treatment methods. Social work has been dedicated to social justice since its inception as a profession in the United States. More significantly, it has contributed to providing more knowledge of evidence-informed policies and practices to discussions addressing the needs of nonviolent drug offenders’ population.

Social Work Roles and Practice Setting

The association between the social work profession and non-violent drug offenders in the United States is characterized as ambivalent and variables. Even though social work was mainly focusing on delinquent children through the Era of Depression and into the 1940s, an influential debate was published by Social Service Review incorporate social workers in the criminal justice profession (Hawkins & Weis, 2017). This would help in assisting adult offenders in the path towards rehabilitation. The Council on Social Work Education formalized social work profession in 1959 with its publication of an educational curriculum for coaching correctional social work. Since then, social workers started working in correctional settings by providing social work services to the inmates. Therefore social workers can work with nonviolent drug offenders who have been admitted into prison settings by providing interventions, ongoing treatments, and clinical supervisions to them.

Prisons are the most available setting that social workers can work in to provide support to nonviolent drug offenders. Some jobs with criminal justice social work include parole and probation officers, diversion program managers, transitional case managers, and arbitration specialists (Carr, 2019). They are mostly responsible for providing quality services to the incarcerated population. Social workers can provide advocacy in addressing the disproportional rate of incarceration for the growing population of nonviolent drug offenders’.They can also provide culturally competent interventions and treatments the inmate populations as well as medications, rehabilitation programs, and treatments.

Furthermore, they are responsible for monitoring the compliance and progress of inmates’ health records the prison settings. Most social workers can also work with multidisciplinary settings to provide help to nonviolent drug offenders. These settings include public health, advocacy communities, and government agencies that seek to improve and reform policies resulting in positive outcomes. Empathy and impartiality are very vital for social workers working in criminal justice systems (Creutz, Mason & McConnachie, 2019). They should also be able to handle ethical dilemmas and take a strengths-based approach in advocating the needs for nonviolent drug offenders. The most important parts of advocacy need for criminal justice social workers are to promote alternatives for incarceration and remove the barriers to services.

There is a consistent trend in need to develop a strength empowerment approach to deal with nonviolent drug offenders. Developing a public health approach to the mandatory minimum policies in the prevention and treatment of drug use is a viable alternative to incarceration (Hawkins & Weis, 2017). The drug treatment will enhance strength among social workers and increase public safety. A research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that public health model and strength empowerment approach is effective in treating the nonviolent drug offenders. Providing treatment also decreases criminal behavior and future drug use while improving the social functioning of nonviolent drug offenders.

Social Legal Environment


In the social, legal environment, social workers can engage with nonviolent drug offenders through correctional facilities and community social services. Their tasks vary depending on the systems they have been assigned. Social workers working in the court diversion program are likely to engage with nonviolent drug offenders through an interdisciplinary team, including the court advocates, judges, and attorneys (Creutzfeldt, Mason & McConnachie, 2019). Those working in correctional facilities run psycho-educational programs that help the nonviolent drug offenders to prepare for life after release and how to deal with drug addictions. In the community social work settings, social workers are champions for the members of the society like the reformed nonviolent drug offenders who have been abandoned, forgotten, or dismissed.

Several social work practices are involved with the nonviolent drug offenders in the micro, mezzo, and macro practice. Micro practice occurs manly during the prevention and intervention strategies. Social workers can work personally with nonviolent drug offenders by providing support programs and treatment options to make them avoid the collateral consequences of being imprisoned and facing incarceration (Brisman, 2015). At mezzo levels, social workers can work with the offender’s families in providing preventive practices and educational facilities of learning how to deal with nonviolent drug offenders. Social workers can utilize the macro practice by using all aspects of delivering a range of useful services to nonviolent drug offenders including treatments and substance abuse assessments in the correctional facilities as well as public awareness and intervention programs on drug use.

Social workers need to consider different environmental factors that impact on nonviolent drug offenders. Some factors include drug addiction, mental health services, low income and poverty, and harsh prison punishments conditions. The mandatory minimum policies have greatly impacted on nonviolent drug offenders due to over discrimination, unfair judgments, and harsh punishments in the prison settings (Saris, 2015). For a long period, the nonviolent drug offenders have been treated differently, contributing to major discrimination in the criminal justice system. The effects of incarceration have led to broken families, children in foster homes, and poverty. The mandatory minimum policies have also severely diluted the voting strength of nonviolent drug offenders due to the increased rates of incarceration. Upon release from the correctional facilities, nonviolent drug offenders no longer have the right to vote in elections. In the social justice perspective, social workers should advocate for the equal rights of this suffering population (Carr, 2019). This can be done through a continued emphasis on the inclusion of public health concepts during the procession of justice-involved with nonviolent drug offenders. This approach will divert nonviolent drug offenders to support and treatment services that will contribute to a reduction in the revolving circle of incarceration arrest and re-arrests.


The main theory of punishment that is related to mandatory minimum sentencing and nonviolent drug offenders is the theory of deterrence. A popular notion that the fear of punishment eliminates or reduces nonviolent drug offenses has existed throughout ages. Scholars articulate three elements associated with deterrence, including certainty, celerity, and appropriate severity (Thornberry, 2018). However, critics of deterrence point to the high rates of recidivism to show that the theory is not effective since those punished tend to re-offend the crimes at a very high rate. The rational choice theory also has a simple idea about individuals committing crimes. Offenders tend to engage themselves in crimes if the rewards of the crime outweigh the punishment. Therefore, nonviolent drug offenders tend to practice prohibited acts since they think they will benefit more than receiving punishments.

Special issues concerns and future directions

Mandatory minimum sentencing policies have been evolving throughout history to the extent of the policies not being considered as a modern development. The policies have been subjects to constant improvements since the federal government has resolved to punish nonviolent drug offenders severely as a way of responding to the public outcry on drug crime (Gottlieb, 2017). However, the statues have minimum effective impacts on the population as well as the criminal justice system because their negative compacts outweigh the positive ones. Specific intervention strategies should be considered other than incarceration. Social services like rehabilitation, public health programs, and awareness campaigns should be considered as effective ways of dealing with nonviolent drug offenders. The services provide positive impacts and are effective in reducing drug crime in society.


Mandatory minimum policies on nonviolent drug offenders have had several impacts that need to be considered when coming up with effective strategies. The policies are considered as contributing factors to discrimination, overcrowding in prisons, and increase in poverty levels, more foster children and increase in drug-related crimes. Along with other factors, the policies have contributed to crucial impacts on the community. Social work profession is greatly associated with a nonviolent drug offense. Through criminal social work, nonviolent drug offenders are provided with treatments, educational programs, assessments, and other methods of dealing with the drug abuse problem. Through social work, effective intervention methods like rehabilitation, public health programs, and facilities can be implemented to deal with nonviolent drug offenders rather than incarnating them into prisons.















Brisman, A. (2015). Environmental Harm as Deviance and Crime. The Handbook of Deviance, 471-487.

Carr, B. V. (2019). Political Authority, Social Control and Public Policy. Agenda210, 214.

Creutzfeldt, N., Mason, M., & McConnachie, K. (2019). Routledge Handbook of Socio-Legal Theory and Methods. Routledge.

Gottlieb, A. (2017). The Effect of Message Frames on Public Attitudes toward Criminal Justice Reform for Nonviolent Offenses. Crime & Delinquency63(5), 636-656.

Harris, J., & White, V. (2018). A dictionary of social work and social care. Oxford University Press.

Hawkins, D. (2017). Sentencing-Sentence Enhancement-Mandatory Minimum. Wisconsin Law Journal.

Hawkins, J. D., & Weis, J. G. (2017). The Social Development Model: An Integrated Approach to Delinquency Prevention. In Developmental and Life-course Criminological Theories (pp. 3-27). Routledge.

Saris, P. B. (2015). A Generational Shift for Federal Drug Sentences. Am. Crim. L., Rev.52, 1.

Taxy, S., Samuels, J., & Adams, W. (2015). Drug Offenders in Federal Prison: Estimates of Characteristics Based on Linked Data. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Thornberry, T. (2018). Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency. Routledge.

Ulmer, J., Painter-Davis, N., & Tinik, L. (2016). Disproportional Imprisonment of Black And Hispanic Males: Sentencing Discretion, Processing Outcomes, And Policy Structures. Justice Quarterly33(4), 642-681.

Van der Geest, V. R., Bijleveld, C. C., Blokland, A. A., & Nagin, D. S. (2016). The Effects of Incarceration on Longitudinal Trajectories of Employment: A Follow-Up In High-Risk Youth From Ages 23 To 32. Crime & Delinquency62(1), 107-140.



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