Mandatory minimum sentencing laws limit court decision setting and judicial discretion. They are used for particular categories of crimes which are usually gun-related and drug-related. Mandatory sentencing laws are main area of interest in common law jurisdictions since civil law jurisdictions prescribe maximum and minimum sentences for every crime in explicit laws. These laws vary from state to state and they require an offender to serve a given number of years in prison. Three strikes rule is a good example of a mandatory sentence which is meant to prevent habitual offenders from committing further crimes. For instance, a third criminal conviction leads to life imprisonment.
Increased punishment and mandatory sentencing were enacted in 1952 when US Congress passed the Boggs Act. The US federal courts use Federal Sentencing Guidelines although statutory mandatory minimum prevails when sentencing range is shorter. The guidelines were drafted in 1960 to provide appropriate prison sentence for various crimes and provide uniformity in punishment for the same crime. However, prosecutors have a great influence on a defendant’s sentence since they can create incentive to accept a plea agreement where applicable. Mandatory minimums have many advantages and disadvantages as discussed below.
Uniformity in sentencing and crime deterrence- This is an advantage of mandatory sentences since it serves as a deterrent to criminal offenders by letting them know what is in the store if they continue with criminal activities. For instance, the fear of a mandatory life-sentence can deter a convicted drug dealer from trafficking drugs again. The sentencing also removes the final decision on sentencing a criminal from a jury or judge. Helps in removing recidivists from the society- Recidivism simply refers to situation where an offender keeps repeating an undesirable behavior despite experiencing consequences. Recidivists are removed from the society by sentencing them to a life imprisonment reducing their number in the society as well as the rate of crime.
Can increase the cost of maintaining prisons- Mandatory sentencing leaves no choice other than to imprison offenders once they are sentenced according to the provision of the law. Such offenders must serve a minimum number of years before possibility of parole. This is hard and it leads to an increase in prison population and places a heavy burden on the government and taxpayers.
Potential for injustice- Mandatory sentencing can easily lead to injustice towards a defendant. This is because the law denies defendants legal resources such as plea bargaining, use of judicial discretion and right to a jury trial. Judicial discretion typically considers mitigating factors like poverty, health and motivating factors before sentencing offenders. Moreover, mandatory sentences may divest judges making it unnecessary to evaluate the type of sentencing appropriate according to the facts of the case. Some people also contend that the sentencing guidelines are unfairly targeting the minority and poor criminals with harsher jail term. For instance, the sentence for possession of powder cocaine has a shorter time than for a similar amount of crack cocaine. Some attorneys contend that this punishes the poor more since they are likely to use crack cocaine more than pure cocaine.