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Mandatory minimum sentencing: high costs, indeed

Reference is often made to the high and multi-sourced costs related to federal criminal sentencing policies, particularly so-called "mandatory minimum" outcomes that often send convicted persons to prison for exceedingly long periods.

Most people who pay attention to criminal law reform issues -- including, certainly, the majority of our readers -- are well familiar with this central complaint of mandatory minimum critics: the sentencing decisions that lock away convicted defendants for decades -- even life terms -- are often visited upon nonviolent and even first-time drug offenders. Moreover, it is notable that many of those persons were charged with marijuana-related crimes, despite evidence showing an increasing desire among many Americans nationally to decriminalize marijuana offenses -- or to simply legalize the use of recreational pot.

Much writing that spotlights mandatory minimums examines what commentators view as the broadly pernicious effects that sentencing policy has upon human beings forced to languish behind bars.

Today's post focuses more squarely on the financial burden of such a policy on American taxpayers.

How much are mandatory minimum sentencing outcomes costing the country?

Here's an estimate, according to an article recently penned on the U.S. political website blog The Hill. America's federal prisons are overcrowded, on average, by about 36 percent, with about half of all prisoners reportedly being locked up on drug-related offenses. An average sentence for those inmates is about 11 years, at the cost of about $80 per day for upkeep.

If select reform measures being debated currently are subsequently enacted, it is estimated that about $24 billion could be slashed from the federal prison budget over the next two decades.

If not, and current overcrowding levels persist, as many as 16 new federal penitentiaries will have to be constructed, each costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's small wonder that federal sentencing reform focused upon mandatory minimums is now a top-rung and high-profile issue that is drawing closest scrutiny from national legislators and engendering strong bipartisan support for material changes to existing sentencing policies and outcomes.

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