Objections To Mandatory Sentencing Laws

Opponents of mandatory sentencing laws oppose them for a variety of reasons. Many judges and lawyers believe that mandatory sentencing laws are arbitrary and sometimes require judges to impose sentences that are unduly harsh. They think that justice requires that sentences be individualized to fit the circumstances of the offender and of the crime. They also think that sentences should vary depending on considerations such as whether the offender was a ringleader or a follower; whether the offender played a major role or a minor one; whether he or she was motivated by greed or poverty; whether a seller of drugs was an addict raising money to support a drug habit or a professional drug dealer; and whether the quantity involved was large or small. A law requiring that anyone convicted of selling more than a small amount of heroin receive a five-year prison sentence ignores all such distinctions.

Opponents also complain that mandatory sentencing laws adversely affect court operations. Because prosecuting attorneys decide what charges to file in each case, mandatory sentencing laws shift power from the judge to the prosecutor. Most crimes are not covered by mandatory sentencing laws. Typically, for example, trafficking in drugs is subject to mandatory penalties, but possession of drugs is not. Since nearly every drug trafficker also possesses drugs, prosecutors can decide which charge to file; a trafficking charge ties the judge's hands; a possession charge gives the judge discretion.

Another objection is that mandatory penalties remove much of the defendant's incentive to plead guilty and thus increase the frequency of trials and lengthen the time required to resolve cases. In most courts, 85 to 95 percent of convictions result from guilty pleas. Many result from plea bargains, in which the prosecutor agrees either to dismiss some charges or to approve a particular sentence if the defendant pleads guilty. If mandatory penalties remove incentives from plea bargains, then trials, backlogs, and delays increase.

Yet another objection is that mandatory sentencing laws sometimes result in deceptive practices on the part of judges. To avoid imposing sentences that they believe are too severe, judges sometimes ignore the mandatory sentence law and impose some other sentence, or acquit defendants of crimes that bear mandatory penalties.

In the context of drug laws, the controversy over disparate mandatory minimum sentences for dealers of crack and powder cocaine has raged since the late 1980s. Under a 1986 federal law, one gram of crack is equivalent to one hundred grams of powder cocaine. The U.S. Sentencing Guideline Commission adopted this ratio when it revised its guidelines that year. However, in 1988 Congress amended the law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine dealing. Thus, selling five grams of crack cocaine is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. To receive the same sentence for trafficking in powder cocaine, a defendant would have to sell five hundred grams. This has resulted in longer prison sentences for small-time crack dealers than for cocaine wholesalers. The federal law and similar state laws have been challenged as violations of equal protection, as African Americans have been charged with more crack cocaine offenses than whites. Similarly, whites have been charged with selling powder cocaine more often than African Americans. These legal arguments have met with little success. By the mid-1990s, the U.S. Sentencing Guideline Commission sought to reduce the disparity in sentencing. As of late 2000, however, it had been unsuccessful in its efforts.

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