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Poll: 60 percent of Americans oppose mandatory minimum sentences

Attitudes about one of the toughest crime measures from the 1980s may be changing.

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For two decades, politicians have worked hard to polish their tough-on-crime credentials.

Now, though – at a time when concerns about crime are low, prison populations are skyrocketing, and voters are more informed about how sentencing laws play out – Americans may be starting to rethink one of the toughest crime reforms from the 1980s: mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

In a new poll, some 60 percent of respondents opposed mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. Nearly 80 percent said the courts are best qualified to determine sentences for crimes, and nearly 60 percent said they'd be likely to vote for a politician who opposed mandatory minimum sentences.

"The public is ahead of the politicians on this," says Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which commissioned the poll and released a new report on the issue Wednesday. "This is a message members of Congress haven't heard…. As a country we believe in individualized justice."

The current spate of mandatory minimums has its root in the crime wave of the 1980s, when fears about crack cocaine, in particular, led lawmakers to draft tougher measures to deter dealers.

Much attention in recent years has focused on the disparity between the minimums meted out for crack cocaine – often connected with African-American offenders and once believed to be more dangerous than powder – and the powder form. Experts now say the two forms are equally dangerous. Those possessing five grams of crack cocaine – versus 500 grams of powder cocaine – face a mandatory minimum of five years.

Last year, the US Sentencing Commission got a reduction of some sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine, sparking a controversy about crack offenders made eligible for release, but the minimums remain the same.

Not everyone believes mandatory minimums should be changed. Attorney General Michael Mukasey strongly opposed the efforts last year to reduce sentences for crack offenders. And the Fraternal Order of Police advocates mandatory minimums as an important deterrent to drug crimes.

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