Defenders of America’s criminal sentencing laws have relied on just two arguments for the last 20 years: Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences have caused crime to fall and have helped prosecutors persuade guilty defendants to cooperate against others.

These arguments served supporters of the status quo well because they had superficial appeal. Today, however, both arguments have been proven false, and even former defenders of the lock-’em-all-up policies have jumped ship and now back commonsense reform.

First, it simply is not true that passing mandatory minimum sentencing laws will always reduce crime and repealing these laws will increase crime. Yes, Congress and the states passed lots of mandatory sentencing laws in the mid- to late 1980s and the crime rate fell, but that is only part of the story.

A decade or so ago, many of the experts who previously supported prison-heavy policies began to think we had gone too far. Professor Steven Levitt, author of the best-selling book “Freakonomics,” estimated in 2004 that more incarceration deserved credit for up to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s. (Note: Even this estimate means that two-thirds of the decrease was due to other factors.)

Levitt’s estimate was higher than that of many other experts, so mandatory minimum defenders cited him frequently. Eight years later, however, Levitt said:

“In the mid-1990s, I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Levitt’s new idea appeared nowhere in the tough-on-crime talking points. Of course, no one in Congress was or is proposing to reduce prison populations that much. Even the most ambitious sentencing reform pending in Congress, the bipartisan SAFE Justice Act, would not achieve that target.

Many states began to rethink their mandatory minimum sentencing schemes at the same time Levitt was questioning their utility. Michigan, once home to the toughest drug laws in the country, repealed its mandatory minimums. Over the course of a decade and a half, 30 states either repealed or reformed their drug laws. In every state, the crime rate fell.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws can no longer be defended. With modest improvements, we can ensure that violent and dangerous repeat criminals continue to get the stiff sentences they deserve while nonviolent offenders get shorter, more proportionate sentences.

Kevin Ring is the director of strategic initiatives at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He wrote this for

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