Mandatory minimum sentences are statutes included in criminal law. They require a convicted criminal to serve a sentence of specific length before being eligible for parole or release. These sentences are usually reserved for crimes that are considered violent or serious, but have been applied to drug possession, gun ownership, and moral vices.
In the United States, the jury is not typically informed of a mandatory minimum penalty because there is a fear that knowing the sentence may affect the determination of innocence or guilt.
The mandatory minim sentences pros and cons serve as a debate regarding the foundation of how criminal justice is applied within a society. Here are the key points of debate to look at.
The Pros of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. They can lead to a decrease in serious crime.
Up until the 1960s, capital punishment was a mandatory minimum sentence for murder. In the United States, it is still a mandatory minimum sentence for serious crimes, like treason. Because of the severe sentencing guidelines that are required by a mandatory sentence, it can reduce crime levels in all targeted categories. The goal of this type of sentence is to make the value of the crime be less than the value in following the law.
2. They stop unjust sentencing practices.
Many judges apply the law to the best of their ability in a professional manner. Then there are some judges that do not. One recent case in Montana involved a teacher who received a 30-day prison sentence for raping a 14-year-old student of his. Installing mandatory minimum sentences can reduce issues where a personal bias comes into play. The judge in Montana stated that the victim “looked older than her age” and that is why he issued such a light sentence.
3. They eliminate personal bias from all parties.
Prosecutors charge based on the actions of the individuals involved in an alleged crime. Judges sentence based on the recommendations of a jury, a plea agreement, or a bench trial. The process is simple and straightforward. Instead of dealing with personal bias, everyone has the same playing field in the justice system and can make decisions that they feel are best for themselves, their communities, or society in general.
4. They protect society for longer time periods.
Minimum mandatory sentencing laws are designed to maximize the safety aspect of prisons for a society. Those who decide to commit a crime are removed from society,so they can no longer do harm to it in their preferred way. Some crimes may offer an option for parole, allowing those who wish to rehabilitate themselves to have a second chance at safely joining the general population once again.
The Cons of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. It limits the role of a judge.
Mandatory minimum sentences are mandated by the legislative and executive branches of government, at either the state or national level. It removes the authority a judge has for sentencing discretion because it treats every convicted person in the same way. By requiring a judge to hand out a mandated punishment for a crime, their role becomes quite limited. Instead of being an actual judge, mandatory minimum sentences turn them into an administrator.
2. It isn’t always applied as it should.
Let’s go back to that case in Montana where a 30-day sentence was handed down for a teacher raping a student. In Montana, the minimum mandatory sentence for a rape conviction, based on the charges filed, was 2 years. The judge decided to hand out a sentence of 30 days anyway.
3. It can be used to target specific groups of people.
Most of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the United States involve drug possession, drug distribution, and similar criminal conduct. The charges that are targeted for the most extensive minimum mandatory sentences tend to be those that minority groups are charged with the most. There are examples of 10-year sentences being handed out for having 1g of marijuana in possession. As a result, the minority population in U.S. prisons is very different than the minority population in the general population.
4. It is used for coercion.
Because mandatory minimum sentences assign lengthy terms to convicted individuals, the threat of a potential conviction is used by law enforcement as an interview tool. The goal may be to move up the chain of command, so the main operators of a crime syndicate can be removed, but because coercion is involved, there can be doubts to the accuracy of the information given.
5. It does not allow for extenuating circumstances.
Patricia Spottedcrow sold a dime bag of marijuana to a police informant. Two weeks later, she sold another $20 worth of marijuana to the same informant. She asked her 9-year-old son for some change, since the transaction occurred at her home. In return, they were sentenced to a minimum mandatory time of 10 years for distribution and 2 years for possession for $31 worth of drugs. She was offered a deal of 2 years in prison, but plead guilty instead because she felt that having no prior convictions and only a small amount of marijuana would be extenuating circumstances. They were not.
6. It comes with a high cost to taxpayers.
The United States is often ranked in the Top 5 countries for per-capita incarceration rates in the world. In 2012, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the aggregate cost of prisons maintained in 40 states (not all 50 or any U.S. territories) was $39 billion. That placed the average taxpayer cost per inmate care at over $31,000 per year. In New York, the average cost per inmate care each year exceeds $60,000. In New York City, the cost per inmate is $168,000 per year. With mandatory minimum sentences extending the length of time prisoners must serve, there is a definite financial cost which must be considered with this practice.
7. It is not always used for violent crime.
Some mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been implemented to control the amount of ammunition that can be held in a clip, even if the gun is not used in the commission of a crime. Simply carrying a firearm, even if not used, can initiate a mandatory minimum sentence under certain statutes. Although the goal of these laws may have initially been to punish the most serious offenses, they have been applied for laws that are not serious or violent over the past 20 years.
These mandatory minimum sentences pros and cons show us that it may be beneficial to have them for serious crime. It may also be detrimental to have them in place for petty crime. There are financial costs that must be considered, along with the safety requirements of a society. For that reason, the decision to implement or not implement these guidelines must occur at the local level.