Research On Mandatory Sentencing Laws

Evaluations of mandatory sentencing laws offer greater support to their opponents than to their supporters. The Panel on Sentencing Research of the National Research Council, the research wing of the National Academy of Sciences, examined all research on mandatory penalties through 1983. Studies on the deterrent effect of mandatory sentencing laws conclude either that passage of such laws has no deterrent effect or that they have a modest deterrent effect that soon disappears. Research on how mandatory sentencing laws affect court operations shows that such laws do shift power from judges to prosecutors, do sometimes result in lower guilty plea rates and higher trial rates, often cause case processing delays, and frequently result in imposition of sentences that the judges and lawyers involved believe are harsher than the defendant deserves. All of these conclusions were reached by the evaluators of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York State in the mid-1970s.

The conclusions of earlier research were confirmed by the most ambitious and sophisticated study of mandatory penalties ever completed—a report on mandatory penalties in the U.S. federal courts by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That study concluded that people convicted of crimes subject to mandatory penalties were two and one-half times more likely to be convicted after trials (30% of convictions) than are other federal defendants (12.5%). The study found that ''mandatory minimums transfer sentencing power from the court to the prosecutor,'' that ''honesty and truth in sentencing'' are compromised by prosecutors' and judges' efforts to work around mandatory sentences, and that ''lack of uniform application [of mandatories] creates unwarranted disparity in sentencing.''

Thus, on the major empirical issues about which opponents and supporters of mandatory penalties disagree, the great weight of the evidence supports opponents' views. Empirical evidence, however, cannot refute supporters' normative claims that mandatory penalties should be enacted to assure citizens that their concerns about crime are taken seriously or that certain crimes deserve severe punishment and that mandatory sentencing laws should be enacted to increase the likelihood that such punishments will be imposed. Opponents of mandatory penalties do not necessarily disagree that lawmakers should try to respond to citizens' concerns, or that some crimes deserve harsh penalties; they do believe that mandatory penalties are an ineffective way to achieve those goals.

(SEE ALSO: Civil Commitment; Drug Laws: Prosecution of; Legal Regulation of Drugs and Alcohol; Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime)


American Law Institute. (1962). Model penal code

(proposed official draft). Philadelphia. Blumstein, A., Cohen, J., Martin, S., & Tonry, M. (1983). Research on sentencing—The search for reform. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Blumstein, A., Cohen J., & Nagin, D. (1978). Deterrence and incapacitation—Estimating the effects of sanctions on crime rates. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation. (1977). The nation's toughest drug law: Evaluating the New York experience. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Tonry, M. (1988). Mandatory penalties. In M. Tonry & N. Morris (Eds.), Crime and justice—A review of research, 16, 243-273. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Sentencing Commission. (1991). Mandatory minimum penalties in the federal criminal justice system. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. TONRY, M. (1997). President Clinton, mandatory minimums, and disaffirmative action. Tikkun. Nov-Dec 1997.

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