While millions of Americans tuned into the 60th Annual Grammy Awards on January 28th, at the Neal Davis Law Firm we were busy pouring through the many great responses to our second scholarship essay contest, which centered around the following question:
“Do mandatory minimum sentences make the U.S. safer or more dangerous?”
In the end, 26% of applicants said they thought mandatory minimums kept us safe, while 74% believed they need to be repealed or updated.
Our winner, Sarah Roberts of Georgetown, Texas, is at freshman at Texas A&M University and plans to study Business. Her essay impressed us by diving into the ethics and morality of mandatory minimum sentencing policies, as well as the way Sarah incorporated specific case examples and citation to prove her argument.
Congrats Sarah on your $1,000 scholarship!
Check out her essay for yourself:
Do mandatory minimum sentences make the U.S. safer or more dangerous?
One can hardly hope to discuss the effectiveness of mandatory minimums without
stumbling into a discussion about ethics and morality. Mandatory minimums act as a bottom line,
which can be dangerous when something as fragile and elusive as justice is at stake. These
minimums are based on the assumption that all criminals of a certain crime are equally guilty and
come from equal circumstances. Mandatory minimums do not make the U.S. safer. Instead, they
are unnecessarily harsh, stand in the way of justice, and can damage community and family
While it may sound reasonable to assume that standardized, harsh punishments prevent
crime, mandatory minimums do not adhere to this logic. As a study from The Sentencing Project
found, crime rates are not determined by the severity of the punishment, but the certainty¹,
indicating that harsh mandatory minimums are no more effective in reducing crime than a less
harsh, more just punishment. According to the Washington Post, after Attorney General Eric
Holder started his initiative to roll back mandatory minimum policies in 2013, crime rates fell,
which would not be the case if mandatory minimums were effective enough to justify their use².
Furthermore, the case of Sharanda Jones exemplifies how mandatory minimum sentencing can
get out of hand—she received a life sentence without parole after her first arrest for transporting
cocaine³. Her punishment is an example of the dangerous nature of mandatory minimums that
leads to circumstances (and justice) being neglected in trial.
Sharanda Jones’ trial also demonstrates how mandatory minimums, along with other
strict criminal justice policies, have a history of disproportionately affecting minorities. As
mentioned in the Academy Award-nominated documentary 13th, mandatory minimum sentences
for drug charges involving crack—the accused in such cases typically being black—were more
harsh than those involving cocaine, where the accused is typically white⁴. A study done by the
United States Sentencing Commission also found that black people were the most likely to have
been convicted with a mandatory minimum penalty from 1995 to 2016⁵. I would argue that a policy
being made into a weapon of mass incarceration against those of a certain race has no
place in the justice system and makes the U.S. more dangerous for minorities.
Needlessly imprisoning people for extended amounts of time due to mandatory
minimums also has a detrimental effect on family and community health. Imprisonment puts a
long-lasting and costly strain on the family of a convicted criminal⁶, especially if the convicted
has children or dependents. The mandatory minimum policy does not take into account these
circumstances, and even in a case where a more lenient sentence is appropriate for the trial at
hand, judges are not given the opportunity to exercise their best judgment and must give a
punishment that is too harsh.
The use of mandatory minimums indicates a distrust in the nation’s justice system to
adequately dole out fair punishments to accused criminals. I, however, have more faith in the
discretion of a judge—who has considered all details of a trial and the accused’s
circumstances—than an overarching rule that blindly assigns punishments. Because of the
prevalence of mandatory minimums, we are coming dangerously close to making injustice the
name of the game in the U.S.—a nation once known as the Land of the Free.
¹ Valerie Wright, “Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment,” The Sentencing Project , Nov. 2010,
² Nancy Gertner and Chiraag Bains, “Mandatory minimum sentences are cruel and ineffective. Sessions wants them back,” Washington Post, 15 May 2017,
³ Sari Horwitz, “From a first arrest to a life sentence,” Washington Post, 15 July 2015, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/07/15/from-a-first-arrest-to-a-life-sentence/?utm_term=.10ec0dac4830>.
⁴ 13th, Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix Original, 2016.
⁵ United States Sentencing Commission, “An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System,” uscc.gov, July 2017, <https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2017/20170711_Mand-Min.pdf>.
⁶ Megan Comfort, “‘A twenty-hour-a-day-job’: The impact of frequent low-level criminal justice involvement on family life,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 2016, pp. 63-79, doi:10.1177/0002716215625038.
Are You the Next Scholarship Winner?
Do you want to win a $1,000 scholarship? Our third scholarship essay contest is now open for submissions. The deadline to answer the following question is August 24, 2018:
“Is more oversight of the FISA court needed? If so, what type of oversight do you suggest?”
Your answer must be between 500-750 words, and only one entry may be submitted per student. Entered essays will be judged within two weeks, and a winner will be selected. Additionally, notable entries will also be published on the Neal Davis Law website.
In order to be eligible for this scholarship, students must be a U.S. resident or resident alien and be registered at a U.S. college or university. Essays must be written by the scholarship applicant and be original to the contest. Essays may not have been written for a prior assignment.
Interested applicants may find more information on our scholarship contest page.
If you have additional questions about the contest, essay requirements or the selection process, feel free to contact us.