The price of punishment - Mandatory minimums compromise justice

Mandatory minimum sentences completely eliminate a judge's discretion when choosing an appropriate punishment for an offender. This curtailing of the courts traditional sentencing rights greatly undermines the integrity of the justice system as a whole.

Under a mandatory minimum sentence, a judge must impose the set sentence without exception. Any mitigating factors such as a defendant's character, history, or specific circumstances that might otherwise call for a lesser sentence must be ignored.

Because of this, mandatory minimum sentences are in conflict with the most basic notions of justice. Under a mandatory minimum sentence the punishment rarely actually fits the crime.

Proponents of the deterrent role of sentencing suggest that if a person is punished for committing a crime, that person's punishment will become an example for others. If one person is punished for a crime, perhaps others will think twice before also committing crimes. By the same account, the idea of deterrence follows the theory that the person punished will also be discourage from committing more crimes in the future.

Those in favor of mandatory minimum sentences declare that such sentencing provisions work toward the notions of deterrence. Supporters contend that criminal activity will decline if potential offenders are concerned they will serve time in prison if they violate the law.

However, agencies including the Maryland State Bar Association have asserted that this school of though is flawed since most potential offenders are completely unaware of which crimes actually carry mandatory minimum sentences. Also, many crimes are committed on impulse without much forethought, which further detracts from the intended goal of deterrence.

A recent bill presented before the Idaho State Legislature states that mandatory minimum sentencing, originally intended to create more consistency in sentencing and reduce sentencing disparity, has severely limited the discretion of the courts, and in doing so force judges to impose punishment inappropriate to the offense or to the circumstances of the offender.

Mandatory minimum sentences fail to create uniformity in sentencing because they force judges to take cases that differ greatly in circumstance and treat them exactly the same.

Studies have shown that mandatory minimums do nothing to end sentencing disparity, but in some cases actually intensify the problem.

The Idaho bill states that mandatory minimum sentences create the inability of the court to tailor punishment to fit a particular defendant's circumstances and the specific circumstances of a case.

Judicial discretion is a key element in diverting some offenders away from repeat criminal activity. Mandatory sentences remove the flexibility judges have in determining which measure of rehabilitation an offender would benefit most from.

Here in Connecticut Mandatory minimum sentences continue to cause a strain on our already lean state fiscal resources. They overburden our correctional facilities with persons who would more suitably be punished through means other than jail time.

Prosecutors, some of the few people who are actually in favor of mandatory minimums, have complained that if mandatory minimum sentencing laws were repealed, they would lose a valuable bargaining chip to compel the accused to plea bargain rather than risk taking the case to trial. Have they thought about situations where the accused might actually be innocent?

A major criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing practice focuses on the fact that this type of sentencing shifts discretion from neutral third-party judges to adversarial and biased prosecutors.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has stated that mandatory minimum sentences permit the prosecutor, not the judge, to select the sentence by choosing to charge, or not to charge, a violation of a statute that carries a mandatory prison term.

Prosecutors can use their own discretion in choosing what they deem to be a fitting charge. Under mandatory minimum sentencing, they alone possess the power to reduce the sentence by lowering the charge.

The main problem with this shifting of power from judges to prosecutors is that while a judge's sentencing actions take place under public scrutiny, a prosecutor's charging and plea-bargaining actions take place under secretive behind-closed-doors circumstances, thus they are not subject to review.

In this light, the notion of checks and balances has been dealt a double whammy, first by stripping the judiciary of its role to specify sentences, then by passing that role on to the prosecutors of the executive branch whose actions cannot be evaluated for abuse.