Mandatory Minimum Sentences


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In 1986, the Democrats in Congress saw a political opportunity to get tough on drugs, after basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. In the 1984 election the Republicans had successfully accused Democrats of being soft on crime. The most important Democratic political leader, House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill,  realized how powerful an anti-drug campaign would be.

The idea was considered for the first time by the House Judiciary Committee four days before the recess began. It had tremendous political appeal as "tough on drugs." This was the creation of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. It was a type of penalty that had been removed from federal law in 1970 after extensive and careful consideration. But in 1986, no hearings were held on this idea. No experts on the relevant issues, no judges, no one from the Bureau of Prisons, or from any other office in the government, provided advice on the idea before it was rushed through the committee and into law. Only a few comments were received on an informal basis. After bouncing back and forth between the Democratic controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate as each party jockeyed for political advantage, The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 finally passed both houses a few weeks before the November elections.



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