Mandatory Sentence Laws

This research paper investigates the literature on mandatory sentence laws. It examines the cases that created legislative changes in sentencing in California and provide an overview of the each case and legislation proposed to address each of them. According to the literature, these stem from the realization that the previously used punitive measures promote a repeat of similar crimes or just don’t meet the rationality requirements of a judicial system. In order to combat this self-destructive system, the literature suggests that constant review of the criminal justice system be conducted through tasks force and proper research. Opinion leaders and politicians must come to a realization that incarcerations are only relevant if they help change the lives of the criminals. Furthermore, the state judicial system must treat criminal cases in a way that does not allow criminals interfere with evidence or commit the same crimes. Finally, to reverse the trend, focus has to shift to rehabilitation of personalities with criminal behavior besides their incarcerations and an attempt be made at redefining the terms of sentences for crimes of felony.

Mandatory sentencing aims to restrain hardcore criminals and potentially violent offenders and incapacitating convicted criminals by putting them through long-term incarceration. Mandatory sentencing has been shown to be counter-effective. While it causes a significant reduction in the arrest rates, indictments, plea bargains, and convictions, it comes with a radical surge in trial rates, delayed sentencing and early dismissals. Essentially, studies show that the overall probability that the criminals won’t be affected and that the length of sentence is likely to be increased for those in prison remains the same even with the adoption of mandatory sentencing (Greenwood, P.W. et al., 1994).

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A case in example that has changed sentencing in California was that of Leandro Andrade. The California Courts charged the respondent with two felony accounts of petty thefts. Prior to this he had been convicted of stealing approximately $ 150 worth videotapes from two different departmental stores. In his judgment, the Jury found him guilty of three previous convictions that subjected him to the “three strikes” regime. Subsequently, there was a public uproar with the popular argument provoked by the fact that his crime were too light to receive a sentence of two consecutive terms of 25 years. Yet still, an attempt to seek reprieve from the Court of Appeal proved futile when the Court of Appeal rejected the claims that his sentence violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment (McDowall, D. et al, 1992).

Also notable is a case of Johnny Patillo who was arrested in January 1992 for trying to sneak a package of 681 grams of crack cocaine from Los Angeles to Dallas; a case of which he pleaded guilty. The 27-year-old African American had a college degree, a steady job and a clean criminal past. However, he argued that desperation due to mounting debts had pushed him into accepting $500 in order to knowingly send the drug laden package. Subsequently, he was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison without a possibility of parole. This was a typical case of absolute application of the minimum mandatory sentence. Indeed, even the Federal District Judge who imposed that sentence believed that it was ‘wildly excessive’. According to her, Patillo had a spotless record and only committed a non violent low level drug offence yet he would be imprisoned longerthan hardcore rapists or armed robbers (Dolinko, D., 1998).

The moral question posed in Johnny Patillo’s case is the problem of the judge having to impose a predetermined sentence for a crime ignoring any features of the defendants, past conduct and circumstances that, if put into consideration, might earn them lesser punitive measures. Interestingly put by the presiding judge, Judge Letts, there would be no change to the sentence imposed on Patillo even if the day before he committed the crime he ‘had rescued fifteen kids from a burning building’. This shows the inconsiderate part of this law. Indeed, a judicial system is only fair when it looks at your past criminal record and your propensity to commit such crimes in the future. This should ideally be the basis of imposing jail sentences (Dolinko, D., 1998).

A factor of racial disparity has also influenced the minimum sentence requirements. For instance, there is a mandatory minimum sentence requirement for trafficking 5000 grams of powder cocaine or 50 grams of crack. Since more than 90% of federal crack defendants are black while almost nearly of the powder cocaine defendants are white, this law has generated a biasness claim of disproportionate impact on the black defendants. In this respect, there has been a recommendation by the United States Sentencing Commission to abolish the law since there is very little scientific basis for the distinction (Dolinko, D., 1998).

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The problem of treating similar cases differently has also emerged with the cases of Paul who are known criminals in California. Peter was convicted of grand theft being18-year-old. He had picked an acquaintance’s pocket and stolen $500 before being caught burglarizing a neighbor’s house. Later on after release from the prison, he held up a liquor store at a gun point. Paul’s crimes were the same but in the reverse chronological order. He had started with gun robbery of a hotel, then burglary of a friend’s house and later was caught by camera pick pocketing from an old lady (Loftin, C. et al, 1983) Although it is arguable that Peter had a more serious progression from non violent theft to potentially violent armed burglary while Paul’s case seems to be out desperation and which is on a regression pattern, the Californian “three strikes” sentencing law sentenced only Paul to 25 years in prison. Paul’s case seemed to perfectly fit in the law requirement as the two prior felonies were “violent and serious”, which are robbery and burglary, while Peter’s first felony of grand theft did not suit the threshold of “violent and serious” as defined by the “three strikes law”. Probably, Peter might have just received a sentence of less than 12 years (Dolinko, D.,1998).  

These examples challenge the justice or the rationality of the mandatory minimum sentencing. Several researches and studies conducted on the feasibility of the mandatory sentencing laws have proved it unsuitable. In 1991 Boston Bar Association and Crime and Justice Foundation Report found that criminal sentencing in the state of Massachusetts was “haphazard, confusing, and archaic.” The report noted that there was a great deal of disproportionality in sentences for certain crimes and that the lack of uniformity in applying the law for the same offenses was remarkable. In spite of the fact the Boston Bar Association and Crime and Justice Foundation report recommended the repealing of mandatory sentencing laws, this has not been done to date ( McDowall, D. et al, 1992).  Besides, former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Risley wrote after an overview of the laws regarding Drug Watch International that mandatory minimum sentences “prevent the judicial trivialization of serious drug crimes.”  According to him, when serious crimes become routine, there is the tendency to be treated as “routine’ and eventually attract less charges (Ethical Inquiry: October 2011).

The idea of mandatory minimum sentence is not without proponents. The proponents feel that public safety is enhanced when mandatory minimum sentences are imposed to deter crime and incarcerate hardcore criminals for long periods of time. In their view, these laws came up due to a rising drug menace in the United States citizens in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, this ‘solution’ brought about several other problems such as racial disparities amongst the victims of the law. Shortly after, a rude realization that 92% of inmates were actually of the black and Hispanic population triggerred serious political overtones. (McDonald, D. et al,1993). This was particularly of interest since studies showed that the rates of use of illicit drugs, their sales, and addiction rates were of equal proportion between the black and white populations. Therefore, their argument did not seem to carry much weight as opponents maintained that mandatory minimums by far target only minor offenders, an idea that in fact shifts attention from the more serious criminals. In this regard, it must be noted that a significant majority of researchers support the position that mandatory minimum sentencing must be reviewed, especially as pertains to drug possession and sales (Tonry, M., 1987).

It is perfectly understandable that mandatory minimum sentencing sought to inject fairness into the process of enforcing punitive measure and to increase public safety. But the question that remains unanswered is whether or not good intentions justify negative consequences or as to whether on a practical level, the mandatory minimum sentencing meets its intended goals (Dolinko, D., 1998). Meanwhile, the state law organs have to grapple with several accusations from various civil groups. Notably, a heated pressure is already coming from organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimum (FAMM), American Civil Liberty Union among others. These institutions insist that the mandatory sentence law continues to generate extremely harsh sentences and limits the discretion of the judiciary in considering individual circumstances. These coupled with the racial disparities was caused by the same law and easily explain the jitteriness of the civil groups (Ethical Inquiry: October 2011).

Political overtones can never be ruled out of such a sensitive issue. Politicians who show empathy for the rising crime rates and lenient sentencing in the judicial system must be sure to gain a significant political mileage. In light of this, politicians have been quick to note urgent reform is necessary. This is something they often do by citing a mail from “concerned constituents” rather than the results of a representative poll (Loftin, C et al , 1983). Nonetheless, their beliefs should be taken seriously because that is what representative democracy dictates. After all, they hold key to effecting of the legislative changes.

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Ideally, criminal justice officials and practitioners should be allowed to exercise their discretion in individual circumstances to avoid giving sentences that they personally consider unduly harsh. Besides, a state law should never allow prosecutors to force defendants to bargain away their constitutional rights like has been the case with mandatory sentence law (Dolinko, D.,1998). The state, therefore, as a matter of priority, must focus most of their efforts passing legislations that rehabilitate criminals instead of just putting them into incarceration. This is the only way that they can bequeath a safe and just society to the next generation of California residents (Ethical Inquiry: October 2011).

When enacting these legislations, the Legislature has to take into consideration the fact that a Criminal justice system that relies mainly on building and operating of more prisons and jails to address public security concerns is untenable and will not at all improve the safety of the general public. In this regard, California has to reinvest its resources meant for the justice system into measures that support community-based rehabilitation programs (Ethical Inquiry: October 2011). Besides, it must put a special emphasis on evidence-based practices that will improve public safety returns in light of a substantial investment in its criminal justice system. Referral of minor or low-level felony offenders without any prior convictions for serious offences, violent criminal activities, or sex offenses to locally run rehabilitation programs should be given serious consideration.  This will be very fruitful in case these local programs are thoroughly strengthened by equipping them to adequately administer community-based punishments, strictly adhere to evidence-based practices, and to apply improved supervision strategies. This is the only step that will improve public safety and facilitate the reintegration of felons back into society (Tonry, M., 1987)

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