Budget deficits are causing some states to reevaluate mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Over the past few decades, mandatory minimums were enacted in part for deterrence, but they have not necessarily deterred criminal behavior. Instead the policies appear to have produced many unintended consequences, one of which is a dramatic and unsustainable increase in criminal justice spending. At the federal level, partly due to mandatory minimums, the prison population has grown from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 today.
Community supervision alternatives to incarceration are often more effective and substantially cheaper than mandatory incarceration, and states that have eschewed mandatory minimum sentencing have seen some success in limiting costs. Texas is a good example. In Texas, the price of parole is $3 a day per offender, while the price of incarceration $79 per day per offender. Texas has focused its limited resources on diverting nonviolent offenders from incarceration. The state’s crime rate is now the lowest it has been since 1973, and the prison population has declined to the point that Texas was able to shut down a prison outside of Houston in 2011. These savings would have been impossible if mandatory sentences had forced Texas judges to incarcerate offenders who clearly benefited more from other – cheaper — alternatives to prison. Mandatory minimums, had they been used more extensively in Texas, likely would have yielded negative results for public safety, for offenders, and for taxpayers.