Statutes that define the boundaries of criminal sentences in the United States typically set a minimum and maximum prison term, leaving the sentencing judge to select a sentence within that range in each case. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws set the minimum above zero, at some substantial prison term. Legislatures that pass these laws generally intend to restrict the power of judges to impose lenient sentences.
In state codes, certain serious crimes such as sexual assault and homicide have traditionally carried substantial prison terms as the minimum sentence. However, the volume of cases sentenced under these laws increased greatly when legislatures in the middle of the twentieth century started attaching mandatory minimum terms to narcotics crimes. Among the states, the New York legislature took a leading role in the use of mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics crimes when it enacted the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973. Mandatory minimum sentences played a substantial role in the enormous prison population growth in the United States between 1975 and 2005.
Legislators who enact mandatory minimum sentencing laws hope to accomplish several objectives. They want to prevent judges from denigrating the seriousness of certain crimes. Because the laws simplify the factors that sentencing judges may consider, they promote more uniform outcomes and send clear signals that might strengthen the deterrent power of the criminal law.
Criticism of mandatory minimum sentences is widespread and cuts across partisan lines. According to these detractors, mandatory minimum sentences reduce the necessary power of the sentencing judge to individualize the sentence imposed on each offender. In particular, the laws direct the judge’s attention only to the details of the offense and ignore many features of an offender’s background. For this reason, mandatory minimum sentences are consistently unpopular with judges.
Mandatory minimum sentences also highlight the importance of prosecutorial discretion to choose among the available charges, some of which include mandatory minimums and others that do not. The prosecutor’s selection of charges can lead to unequal sentencing outcomes for defendants who commit identical crimes. Because police officers and prosecutors often aim to avoid the use of these laws in some eligible cases, mandatory statutes lead to fewer arrests for the designated crimes, fewer charges filed, and more dismissals of charges. These statutes also undermine the power of sentencing guidelines to produce reasonable uniformity among sentences while still accounting for important individual differences.
The prospects are limited for ways to ameliorate these ill effects. Governors have not often exercised their pardon and commutation powers. The courts have shown reluctance to overrule severe minimum sentences under the cruel and unusual punishment clauses of the federal and state constitutions. For instance, the Supreme Court in Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), upheld a twenty-five-year sentence for an offender with prior convictions who stole three golf clubs.
Ultimately, the best hope for checking the effects of mandatory minimum penalties rests in the legislature. In 1970, the U.S. Congress repealed most of the existing federal mandatory minimum laws, an effort supported by then-Congressman George H. W. Bush. The political environment, however, does not often allow legislators to repeal these laws. Despite apparent widespread agreement in the New York state legislature about the need to revise the Rockefeller drug laws, the reforms languished for several years and finally passed in 2004 only in weakened form.
RONALD F. WRIGHT
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited