Mandatory minimum sentences refer to court decision settings that require people convicted of crimes to spend time in prison for a minimum number of years, regardless of the individual circumstances they find themselves in. Each country has its own mandatory sentencing laws, and several crimes (such as offenses involving drugs, guns, and pornography) come with their own mandatory minimum sentences.
Mandatory sentencing laws have been around for decades now. In the United States, for example, these laws were first enacted when the Boggs Act of 1951 was passed. They have been successful in deterring crime at some level but, over the years, many people have been voicing out against them. In fact, a 2014 survey showed that almost 80 percent of Americans agreed to the elimination of mandatory sentencing laws.
If you’re not sure where to stand, here’s a list of some of the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory minimum sentences:
List of Pros of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. They discourage people from committing crimes.
In many countries, the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences has paved the way to lower crime rates. The United States, for example, reportedly experienced a drop in crime when many of the mandatory sentencing laws were put into place in the 1980s. This isn’t really surprising since these sentences give people a clear idea about the number of years that they’ll have to spend in prison if they get convicted of committing a certain crime. This, in turn, encourages them to stay on the right side of the law to avoid getting imprisoned for a long time.
However, it’s important to note that this isn’t always in the case in every country. In the Northern Territory in Australia, for example, property crime rates soared when mandatory minimum sentences were put into place and plummeted when they were repealed. More research is needed to see if this change in crime rates is directly related to mandatory minimum sentences or if it’s caused by other factors.
2. They prevent personal bias from getting in the way of justice.
Judges are humans, too, and they can be tempted to award lenient punishments if they know the defendants or if they feel favorably towards them. Fortunately, mandatory minimum sentencing laws can prevent this from happening. Since they have to abide by these laws, judges have no choice but to sentence convicted people to the appropriate number of years.
However, it’s important to take note that personal bias can still be present in the courtroom, particularly when the mandatory maximum sentence is concerned. If a judge doesn’t like the defendant, he can award him with the mandatory maximum sentence and cause him to spend years or even decades in prison — whether he deserves it or not.
3. They make sure that sympathy won’t come into play.
Aside from keeping biases at bay, mandatory minimum sentences ensure that juries would not be swayed by sympathy and perceive perpetrators to be less guilty or even entirely innocent just because they feel sorry for them.
4. They ensure that justice is served.
Mandatory minimum sentences ensure that those who violate the laws will receive the appropriate punishment and pay for the crimes with their freedom. Since they’ll have to spend some time in prison, these convicted people will be taken off the streets and won’t have the chance to commit additional crimes, helping lower the country’s crime rates.
List of Cons of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
1. They can be an unfair, one-size-fits-all solution.
The premise surrounding mandatory minimum sentences is that judges have no choice but to award the same minimum punishment to everyone who commits the same crime, without taking their individual circumstances into account. This means that hardened criminals can get off with a sentence that’s too light for the atrocities they’ve committed and that innocent people (like those who were framed or who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time) can get jailed for years.
2. They can lead to overcrowding in prisons.
Mandatory minimum sentences cause people to go to jail even if it’s their first offense and/or they committed a crime that they didn’t mean to do. They can even get imprisoned even when they’re innocent. As a result, a lot of people end up going to prison when they could have been given lighter sentences that didn’t involve imprisonment, such as conditional discharge and probation. This can cause prison populations to soar and force prisoners to live in overcrowded conditions that aren’t conducive to health, safety, and security.
3. They can pave the way to higher government expenses.
An increase in prison population can lead to an increase in government expenses. After all, the government has to make sure that prisoners are properly fed and clothed and give them access to medical care. They also have to hire additional staff to maintain security as well as peace and order in jails and look after the prisoners. All of these costs a huge amount of taxpayers’ money — money that could otherwise have been spent on healthcare, education, housing, and other projects.
4. They can be used as a way to target minority groups.
Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences point out that these can be used to discriminate minority groups and make their lives harder. One oft-quoted example is that those who use, sell, or produce drugs that are often used by African-Americans are often given harsher penalties than those who deal with drugs that are often used by the white population. This, in turn, greatly contributes to the high incarceration rates of African-Americans and promotes a culture of fear, low self-esteem, and distrust of authorities among them.
Mandatory minimum sentences can have positive effects on the justice system and ensure that punishment is given to those who deserve it. However, it also has its drawbacks and can make life difficult for those who are wrongly accused as well as those who belong to minority groups. With these in mind, it’s important to find a balance between the pros and cons and ensure that mandatory minimum sentences are used for the best.