Different Motivations Lead to Bipartisan Support to End Mandatory Sentencing

Twenty-five years after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which set mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug offenders, an unlikely alliance of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats has formed to propose legislation reversing the policy. Conservatives cite concern about the increasing cost of incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders, while liberals are concerned that mandatory sentences overwhelmingly and unfairly target people of color.

The different reasons conservative and liberal legislators give for pushing sentencing reform are reflected in the views of Americans on the issue. Republicans (67 percent) are more than twice as likely than Democrats (30 percent) to believe that black Americans and other minorities receive equal treatment to whites in the criminal justice system. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Democrats disagree that black Americans and minorities are treated the same as white Americans. Independents, like Americans overall, are split: 50 percent believe that criminal justice system treats everyone equally, while 45 percent disagree.

Race also plays a large role in determining attitudes about the criminal justice system’s ability to be colorblind. Fifty-three percent of white Americans agree that black Americans and other minorities receive equal treatment to white Americans in the criminal justice system. Nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of black Americans disagree, including half (50 percent) who say they completely disagree. Nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Hispanic Americans also disagree.

Due to the different motivations of legislators, arguments about racial inequality alone are unlikely to secure passage of the proposed legislation as members of Congress argue against mandatory sentencing.