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Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Not Cost Effective, Says New Research Report From RAND


May-June 1997

"Mandatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost-effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption or drug-related crime," says a new report from the RAND Corporation. The report, which asks "are mandatory minimum drug sentences cost-effective?" focuses on cocaine, comparing the relative effectiveness of strategies to reduce cocaine consumption per million taxpayer dollars spent (Jonathan P. Caulkins, C. Peter Rydell, William L. Schwabe, and James Chiesa, "Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers' Money?" RAND Corporation, 1997).

The cocaine control strategies compared by the authors are: 1) longer sentences for typical offenders at all levels of government; 2) conventional enforcement of typical offenders at all levels of government; 3) federal mandatory minimum sentences for high-level dealers; 4) conventional enforcement by federal government for high-level dealers; and 5) treatment of heavy users. The comparative effects of these five strategies were measured in kilograms of cocaine consumption reduced per million 1992 dollars spent. If the million dollars were used to simply lengthen drug sentences for the average offender to those of mandatory minimum length, as the current law does, the amount of cocaine consumed would be reduced by 13 kilograms (kg), the least effective of any one method. If the money were used to arrest typical dealers, take their assets, prosecute and jail them, then reduction would be 27 kg.

The report says that if federal mandatory minimum sentences were applied only to high-level dealers, it would reduce cocaine consumption by just under 40 kg. Because current sentences are applied to all dealers, instead of just higher-level dealers, they are less cost-effective. Conventional enforcement by the federal government of high-level dealers would reduce consumption by over 60 kg. Therefore, conventional enforcement is more effective than mandatory minimums. The authors state that such enforcement allows the government to seize the assets of the dealers, and to eliminate their income, thus the cost burden on the dealer is greater and consequently more effective.

RAND concluded that the most cost-effective method of reducing cocaine consumption is treatment of heavy users. Per million taxpayer dollars spent, this method would reduce consumption by over 100 kg, according to the study. Treatment would also most cost-effectively reduce cocaine-related crime, at a rate of nearly 15 times the incarceration options. The researchers say that the results do not support a shift of all resources from one approach to another, however they do suggest that a broader mix of measures might be more cost-effective.

To order a copy of this report, ISBN #0-8330-2453-1, call RAND Distribution Services at (310) 451-7002 or order it via the Internet at