Every year, millions of people in the US go through its criminal justice system. Referenced for its constant work in progress at all levels of authority and the numerous problems it is facing, this system try its best to provide just punishments to those who break the law. As it holds itself to such a mandate, approaches and directives are taken to reduce the number of people who commit crimes. This was when the “tough on crime” policy of the early 1990’s came to be, as well as other landmark legislations that had defined how the country treats people who are considered criminals.
One particular part of the criminal justice system is mandatory minimum sentencing, which has become hot subject at the heart of the need to reduce the incentive of committing crimes and racial inequality. Mandatory minimum sentences continue to be talked about, as citizens, politicians and ex-convicts push their opinions.
Being imposed in various jurisdictions as a deterrent for repeat offenders, these sentences have been incorporated into certain statutes to prevent specific crimes from being committed, such as gun or drug crimes. The objective of mandatory minimum sentences is making the consequences of committing crimes less beneficial than the perceived rewards. In some cases, this works very well, but in other situations, its benefits are not always so apparent.
To come up with a well-informed opinion whether the issuance of mandatory minimum sentences is reasonable or not, let us take a look at its pros and cons.
List of Pros of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. They help eliminate personal bias.
In the US, 300 million people are having their unique opinions on certain subjects. This is true in the justice system just as much as it is with any other state matter. For mandatory minimum sentences, they help with creating a standard of justice that is applied equally to all parties who have been charged with similar crimes.
2. They eliminate the sympathy factor in litigations.
Though every person deserves a fair chance, placing too lenient sentences would almost make it seem like offenders are getting away with the crimes they committed. With mandatory minimum sentencing, there is a guarantee that judgments will be uniform throughout the justice system, so offenders will be punished based upon their overall moral culpability.
3. They can lead to a decrease in crime.
When mandatory minimum sentencing was first used in the country’s justice system in the 1980’s, there was seen a significant decrease in crime across all categories while the sentences were handed down.
4. They would effectively shift discretion from judges to prosecutors.
As prosecutors make the decision of what charges to put against the defendants, they can “stack the deck”, which involves over-charging them in order to reach a guilty plea. And since prosecutors are part of the executive branch, while the judicial branch has almost no role in giving sentences, the democratic system’s checks and balances will be removed.
List of Cons of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. They shift the personal bias in trials.
Sentencing used to be done by judges or juries, but with mandatory minimum sentences, a guilty verdict would mean that prosecutors have more control over sentences offenders would receive. In other words, they have the power to choose whether or not they will charge offenders crimes that carry a minimum mandatory sentence.
2. They would unfairly target minority groups.
One of the most common types of mandatory minimum sentence in the US has something to do with drug use. When it comes to the more strictly controlled drugs, there will be extremely harsh sentences for producing, having and attempting to sell them. In fact, for drugs that are more frequently used by the African American community, there are even harsher sentences than those used by the majority white population. As a result, mandatory minimum sentences is seen as a new form of segregation, where a jail culture for African Americans has emerged, resulting in a higher incarceration rate among adults in the community.
3. They can create an environment of coercion.
When low-level criminals are threatened with high-level mandatory sentences, they would often do or say anything to get out of spending many years in prison. It is believed that mandatory minimum sentences can help law enforcers move up the organized crime chain of command, but the accuracy of information they are receiving might be questionable.
4. They can be unjust.
Mandatory minimum sentences can surely be unjust. In one occasion, a desperate mother of four was once paid USD100 to mail an unknown package to someone that contained hundreds of grams of crack cocaine, and the judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison, as the law dictated what had to be done even though the judge felt it unjust and irrational.
5. They are not effective, especially in cases involving alcohol-fueled violence.
When a person is intoxicated, there would be a change in his behavior or personality, which can affect his self-control. This means that he is likely to commit an act unintentionally or involuntarily while in a sober state. This is not to justify drunken behavior, but it is important to note that an intoxicated individual would not think through the possible consequences of his actions.
For better or for worse, the issuance of mandatory minimum sentences has become a central part of the country’s judicial system, taking the law out of the judges’ hands and putting it on a pre-defined idea of the appropriate punishments for corresponding crimes. While supporters say that it decreases crime and remove sympathy or bias from the litigation process, opponents argue that it unfairly targets minority groups in the US, destroying families and homes, as well as creating an institution where citizens are more likely to commit crimes in the future.
While legislation continues to push against the failures of the “tough on crime” approach over the past 20 years, mandatory minimum sentences will also continue to change, as the nature of law in the country is more accurately reflecting what the community needs.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.