You often hear about, and we often refer to, “tough on crime” laws. These “tough on crime” laws date back to the 1980s, maybe earlier. They picked up speed in the 1990s and 2000s. And we’re still feeling the consequences of them today.
In fact, a significant part of the millions of people in America’s jails today likely wouldn’t be there without “tough on crime” laws. So understanding what these laws are and how they impact your case is very important.
What are “tough on crime” laws?
The timeline for “tough on crime” laws dates back to the 1980s. In 1986, Len Bias, one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, passed away from a cocaine overdose. Bias’s death came in the middle of a hotly contested political election. At the time, some politicians were fighting off allegations of being “soft on crime.” So they felt the need to propose harsher criminal penalties for drug crimes.
The most common “tough on crime” policy proposed came in the form of mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums are sentences that a court must impose. And, at least for some states, they are sentences that get added to other charges and increase prison time.
For example, in Michigan, there is a two-year mandatory sentence for “felony firearm.” This means that when someone has a gun when they commit a felony, they get a two-year sentence no matter what. This sentence is also served on top of the sentence for any other crime. So, if you get a ten-year sentence for assault and a two-year sentence for having a gun, you’re going to prison for 12 years.
What makes mandatory sentences like this harsh is that courts don’t have the power to change them. That’s true even if the judge believes you don’t deserve that harsh of a sentence.
How do “tough on crime laws” impact your case?
These “tough on crime” laws impact your case in many different ways. As the example above shows, they can make your sentence longer. But they play a role in criminal cases that isn’t as obvious as well.
Imagine you’re charged with a sexual assault involving penetration by force. In Michigan, that crime is first-degree criminal sexual conduct. If convicted, you face a 25-year minimum sentence (plus the potential for life in prison).
With that 25-year minimum hanging over your head, you may feel compelled to take a plea deal. Because of the way our system work, that’s true even if you’re innocent. And if the prosecutor offers you five or ten years in prison, it might be a hard offer to turn down.
The end result? You’re an innocent person pleading guilty to second-degree sexual assault. That’s a serious felony conviction that will stay on your record for life. It will also likely land you on the sex-offender registry, impacting your life in more ways that you can ever imagine. And those are the consequences on top of the ten years in prison.
But you were willing to accept all of those consequences simply because you feared the 25-year minimum that was out there. That’s how “tough on crime” laws impact your case. They might not increase your actual sentence by themselves (but that’s possible, too). Instead, they’ll be hung over your head, forcing you to make strategy decisions like your life is some kind of board game—even if you’re innocent.
In the 1980s, lawmakers passed “tough on crime” laws to fight what they perceived as a growing drug problem. Now, those laws have spread throughout the criminal justice system. They could directly impact your case by making your sentence longer. But they could also indirectly impact your case by pressuring you to take a plea deal you never would have otherwise accepted.