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Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws:
Mandatory minimum sentences, which were rare in the criminal law or justice system, have experienced a remarkable increase in popularity. As a political phenomenon, the policy has enjoyed broader bi-partisan support since mid-1980s as the U.S. Congress has continued to enact new measures for containing mandatory minimum sentences. The major goal of the Mandatory Minimum Sentence Laws is basically to prevent the judicial trivialization of serious drug offenses. While the policy has continued to attract significant protests and criticisms, they have been relatively effective in accomplishing their main objective. The harsh sentencing laws with relation to drug offenses were adopted throughout the country following the stepped-up pace of arrests during the enactment period. Despite of the political popularity of these laws, many commentators have become increasingly concerned with the social and economic impacts originating from the propagation of these statutes. Actually, some legal scholars have considered the effects of Mandatory Minimum Sentences Policy as a clear example of the unintended consequences of the law.
History of the Law:
Mandatory minimum sentences are not a contemporary development since they have a history that stretches back to 1790 when they existed for privacy and murder (Mascharka, 2001, p.938). As previously mentioned, the sentences were enacted in reaction to the public outrage and concern regarding well-publicized offenses. Since they did not focus on every class of crime, mandatory minimums were an uncommon exception to the sentencing system until recently. During the 20th Century, the United States Congress enacted a series of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Some of these laws included the Boggs Act in 1951 and Narcotics Control Act of 1956.
Notably, the shift towards the existing state of sentencing for federal drug crimes started with the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984. Through passing this law, the bi-partisan Congress essentially transformed sentencing by refusing the rehabilitation punishment model. The Sentencing Reform Act changed the undefined system through delegating authority to the Sentencing Commission to create guidelines that would enhance its objectives. The SRA objectives were removing disparity, offering just punishment, and ensuring certainty in sentencing. Furthermore, the Congress made the regulations compulsory and eliminated federal parole system.
The enactment of Sentencing Reform Act was followed by the passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which was established at a time of huge public paranoia and rage over the crack pandemic and the fear of the spread of AIDS via drug use. The 1988 Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act was enacted as a more comprehensive series of quantity-based mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Since then, both the state and federal legislatures have to add new mandatory provisions while improving old ones. Actually, by 2007, there were approximately 171 mandatory minimum sentences that were enacted by the Congress.
Provisions of Mandatory Minimum Sentences:
Mandatory minimums have two levels in the federal system with every level doubling for defendants with previous convictions. The first level requires a minimum sentence of imprisonment for 5 years and 10 years with a previous offense of drug conviction. On the contrary, the second level needs a minimum of 10 years imprisonment, which increases to 20 years with one previous felony drug conviction and mandatory life sentence with two such previous convictions (Risley, 2000). Through the levels defendants can obtain a reduction in the time they serve in prison of only 54 days annually as an incentive for good behavior, which implies that the criminals must really serve about 85% of their sentences.
In order for a drug crime to be regarded as a felony, it must be punishable by over one year sentence. Similar to the federal system, many states rarely categorizes a drug offense as a felony unless it incorporates the allocation of the drugs involved or an intention to do so. Consequently, for many abstract purposes, a previous felony conviction for a drug such as marijuana can be interpreted as a previous conviction for distribution. Many small distribution cases are lessened to wrong simple personal use or possession charges as part of plea bargains.
Generally, mandatory minimum sentences enhance the spine of the criminal justice system since the Congress sent a clear message to drug dealers. Through the laws, the Congress has added the grip on the criminal justice system despite of who the judge is because serious crime results in serious time. This is particularly important because what was considered and punished accordingly as serious offenses by some judges was minimized to lenient sentences by other judges before the advent of mandatory minimum sentences. Lenient sentences became more prevalent in places with high volumes of main drug crime like drug importation centers and large metropolitan areas. The difference in the sentencing originate from the fact that federal judges had uncontrolled discretion to enforce whatever charges they regarded appropriate in their personal opinion up to the statutory maximum.
Judges from all ideologies have stated that the mandatory sentences have excessively limited the judges' discretion and result in unjust sentences (Greenblatt, 2008, p. 4). As a result, many judges including Supreme Court Justices have raised their concerns and criticisms against minimum sentences. Moreover, mandatory minimum sentences policy have been criticized for being used unreasonably against minority defendants, for their failure to serve as crime deterrent, and contributing to an increase to prison overcrowding.
Impact of the Laws on the Criminal Justice System:
Drug crimes generally differ from most offenses as they are subject to three jurisdictions i.e. local, state, and federal. An American attorney, merely through deciding to enter a specific case, may significantly distort the range of probable punishments. As a result, an individual may even be tried twice for the same drug offense and found innocent by a state court though subsequently convicted by a federal jury. Mandatory minimum sentences tend to ignore the defendant's role in the offense. For instance, driving a truckload containing drugs can be subject to similar punishment or penalty as the individual financing the shipment.
Mandatory minimum sentences policies have had significant impacts on the criminal justice system since their enactment into law. However, in the past few years, evidence has shown that the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws have not been effective in accomplishing the goals of the criminal justice system. Actually, there is considerable proof that the laws have contributed to lengthy imprisonment of many low-level offenders annually. These criminals have been subject to lengthy incarceration could be properly sentenced to short terms, which could result in huge annual savings (Vincent & Hofer, 1994). This is followed by the fact that these laws do not narrowly target violent criminals or major drug traffickers.
Generally, the policies have unexpected consequences that compromise the basic integrity and fairness of the federal criminal justice system. This has contributed to the argument that the benefits of these policies could be accomplished at lower costs and with lesser negative impacts through the enforcement of the federal Sentencing Guidelines. According to critics of the statutes, mandatory minimum sentences are written so widely to an extent that they affect many minor criminals. The affected minor offenders include those with no threat to the society and who could be suitably punished with short sentences. Moreover, determining the number of the affected minor criminals annually or those who are currently imprisoned has been difficult.
On the contrary, mandatory minimum sentences policy are considered to be worth the price since they are enacted and continually improved in response to the public outcry and rage about the increase in drug offenses. The proponents of the statutes argue that the policies accomplish their objectives of providing harsh regulations for drug offenders in attempts to lessen the crimes. These people believe that the negative consequences of the laws are overstated since the policies act as significant symbolic functions that have wide deterrent effect. The laws are expected to have more deterrent impacts as public knowledge increases regarding the congressional determination to punish crime severely.
The major sentencing goals that are achieved through mandatory minimum statutes include general deterrence of potential offenders, specific deterrence and rehabilitation of known criminals, incapacitation, and punishment. This is despite the fact that the laws have had no observable impact on offenses.
Analysis of the Laws:
The main objective of federal sentencing reform is lessening disparity though the federal mandatory minimum sentences statutes are applied inconsistently. Consequently, the statutes seem to have more negative impacts on the criminal justice system rather than positive effects. The negative effects of the laws on the criminal justice system is from the fact that America currently has the same number of incarcerated people for drug offenses as the number of imprisoned individuals for all offenses two decades ago (Schlosser, 1994). The tough federal drug statutes, which are strictly enforced, have fueled extraordinary growth in the federal prison system.
The reason for the ongoing negative impact of the laws is that they have created dissension in the federal legal system and has forced many judges to seek for early retirement. In spite of the huge…[continue]
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