In 1986, the Democrats in Congress saw a political opportunity to outflank Republicans by “getting 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, was from Boston, MA. The Boston Celtics had signed Bias. During the July 4 congressional recess, O’Neill’s constituents were so consumed with anger and dismay about Bias’ death, O’Neill realized how powerful an anti-drug campaign would be.
O’Neill knew that for Democrats to take credit for an anti-drug program in November elections, the bill had to get out of both Houses of Congress by early October. That required action on the House floor by early September, which meant that committees had to finish their work before the August recess. Since the idea was born in early July, the law-writing committees had less than a month to develop the ideas, to write the bills to carry out those ideas, and to get comments from the relevant government agencies and the public at large.
One 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 poitical advantage, The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 finally passed both houses a few weeks before the November elections.
What are mandatory minimum sentences?
A mandatory minimum sentence is a minimum number of years, typically 5- or 10-years in prison, that must be served when a person is convicted of a particular crime. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are based on the amount of drugs involved. Different drugs have different set quantities that trigger a specific minimum sentence.