Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are highly controversial legal practices instituted in Florida and other states. These laws are aimed at ensuring that certain crimes carry with them a bare minimum of criminal punishment and rehabilitation. These laws are widely seen as highly discriminatory as well as ineffective with regards to preventing future occurrences of criminal behavior. This sample essay demonstrates how mandatory sentencing laws represent a very inflexible form of criminal punishment by the state and is one of the many custom writing services offered by Ultius.
Effects of Mandatory Minimums in the Justice Systems of Florida and Other States
The mandatory minimum sentencing laws are horrid, discriminatory laws. While present in many states, Florida tends to have what one would consider a “reasonable” stance—where the suggested mandatory minimums only apply to violent-type crimes and act, in many cases, as an alternative to the death penalty. Despite this, there are a host of problems that go along with these laws and their implementation. This study will examine various aspects of mandatory minimum statutes and adjudicate whether keeping or discarding these statutes should be done based on the information presented thus restoring beneficial elements to criminal justice reform.
Origins of mandatory minimum sentencing in Florida
According to William D. Bales, as he writes in his essay “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Florida: Past Trends and Future Implications,” Florida sentencing guidelines laws were enacted in October 1983, and this was the catalyst of ending the prison system release mechanism of parole. There were also new capacity limits set by the courts which described the prison population maximum as the number of beds available. Both of these together created a large influx of new prison inmates, and there was not enough space to house these new entrants into the system (Bales 309). This forced the hand of prison administrators into implementing early release programs which were very unpopular with Florida citizens as they reduced court-set sentences significantly:
“Inmates released from Florida’s prisons in June, 1990, served, on average, 33% of the sentences meted out by the judiciary” (Bales 315)
Bales highlights that the early release of thousands of Florida inmates have dismayed the citizens of Florida. So much so that the legislators respond with an even firmer hand, introducing more mandatory sentencing laws, which only served to further promote the same problem at an ever-increasing rate.
Rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws: Ineffective at best
These laws create large populations of long-term prison inmates. And when a prisoner is faced with so much time behind bars, the career-criminal mindset begins to make sense. It is as if the state has chosen the paths of these men and women by dictating what is deviant behavior and insisting that they own their criminality in full. However, Bales is uncertain of the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing on prison populations and asserts that more study is needed. Though he does mention that any incentive to conform to institutional regulations or norms in order to gain quicker freedom (i.e., “out early on good behavior”) is lost with mandatory minimum sentencing as these policies create no incentive for the prisoner to reform. Bales quotes a Loftin and McDowall study on the effectiveness of the deterrent qualities of mandatory minimum sentencing laws:
”The enthusiastic initial reports announcing the sweeping success of the Florida law in reducing violent crimes such as robbery and assault were overly optimistic…the Florida gun law did not have a measurable deterrent effect of violent crime” (Bales 326).
In his essay, “Making the Crime fit the Penalty: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion Under Mandatory Minimum Sentencing,” David Bjerk explains that a crime worthy of counting toward three-strikes sentencing is not always reported as such—and vice versa for crimes that shouldn’t count toward three-strikes, but do nonetheless.
Importance of measurement errors
It is important to note that there is likely to be considerable measurement error concerning who is defined to be “arrested (convicted) for a three-strike crime” versus those who are defined to be “arrested (convicted) for other crimes.” As mentioned previously, the actual criteria required to be eligible for three-strikes sentencing is generally more specific than what is contained in the State Court Processing Data used here and ignores the jarringly inconsistent socioeconomic contributing factors. This means that some individuals are likely classified as being arrested for a three-strike crime when they should not be, and some individuals are classified as being arrested for an “other” crime, when they should be in the three-strike group (Bjerk 6) Here Bjerk is referencing the tabulation of statistical data for analysis. The level of confusion amid the noted statistics is a problem point, as any analysis drawn from this information will have a much higher probability of being wrong. Backwards data results in backwards solutions.
Prosecution manipulation of sentencing
But Bjerk goes on to point out that the prosecutors of those arrested for these targeted crimes may choose to pursue prosecution for other crimes that aren’t included in the three-strikes targeted crimes list as an alternative. Prosecutors would do this so that they could avoid the possibility of sentencing the defendant to over-long prison terms. (Bjerk 7) People working within the justice system either know that these long terms are a burden on the system, or they are just sympathetic toward those accused criminals—either way, professionals in the legal system understand the details and consequences of mandatory-minimum laws and actively work against them.
Working around the law
Jefferey T. Ulmer and his team also note this “working around” the law in their paper, “Prosecutorial Discretion and the Imposition of Mandatory Minimum Sentences.” They found that
“prosecutors’ decisions to apply the mandatory minimum are significantly affected by the type and characteristics of offenses and guideline sentence recommendations, prior record, mode of conviction, and gender” (Ulmer 427).
Logically, this type of activity makes sense. In the instances of only applying three-strikes charges to offenders who have a prior record, one would not want to impose Draconian measures unless other avenues have already been tried. And people also tend to go softer on women as a matter of course, so it would make sense that men would bear the brunt of three-strikes prosecutions. It also makes sense that crimes that are commonly judged to be more abhorrent would commonly be assigned a three-strikes classification. But while any of these choices may make sense, the fact that a prosecutor gets to adjudicate whether or not a crime is a three-strikes crime or not, and adjudicate that fact based solely on their own personal prejudices—well, that’s slanted, skewed, and unfair.
Racial factors in mandatory minimum laws
Ulmer and his team go on to note that:
Hispanic males are more likely to receive mandatory minimums and the Black-White differences in mandatory application increase with county percentage Black…of particular concern is that although mandatory minimums target offenses disproportionately committed by minorities, the prosecutor’s discretion to apply mandatory minimums might also be biased against minorities. (Ulmer 428).
These race-based choices highlight how mandatory minimums help to cement the foundation of the broken system already in place that alienates and demonizes minorities. Also noted is the dismantling of judicial power that these mandatory minimums create within the justice system:
“Mandatory-minimum sentencing policies and the consequent displacement of discretion from judges to prosecutors reflect a larger political trend toward distrust of and disempowerment of judges and, simultaneously, growth in the trust in and empowerment of prosecutors” (Ulmer 2007).
Imbalance in sentencing
Clearly the misapplication of these laws allows for an unfair imbalance in which specific, chosen types of people are on the receiving end of society’s punitive intent. However, Shimica Gaskins highlights the inherent injustice present in mandatory-minimum sentencing laws when applied 100% “by the book.” In her essay, “Women of Circumstance—The Effects of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing on Women Minimally Involved in Drug Crimes,” Ms. Gaskins asserts that many convicted female drug offenders have very little to do with the actual crimes being committed and are neither contributors nor participants in the American drug culture in most cases. Oftentimes these women are tricked, forced, or persuaded to hold or carry drugs. Despite their marginal role in trafficking, sanctions are tied to the quantity of drugs involved as opposed to the involvement a person has in the operation. For this reason, these women are charged with conspiracy to traffic controlled substances, and this charge comes with the full punitive force that goes along with taking a leading role in the activity.
Mandatory minimum sentencing limiting the power of judges
Per Gaskins, mandatory-minimums are almost always utilized by the prosecution. This ties the hands of judges and makes lesser and more context-based sentencing impossible. This simply adds fuel to the already very long, large, and unfair fire (1535-1536). So now there is a paradoxical impossibility where the “fact” that mandatory minimums are “almost always” applied which ties the hands of judges is juxtaposed against the “fact” that mandatory minimums are used against minorities or offenders accused of crimes considered to be more heinous than others, most of which are not considered to be violent crimes. In either case of these supposed facts, the outcome is negative; and the surrounding confusion of what the actual effects are also creates a negative result. Crime sentencing should be clear, direct, and done under the auspices of healing a wrong and creating a reformed criminal.
Minimum sentencing proves ineffective in practice
Jill Farrell notes that while mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are popular political maneuver for legislators, they are in fact useless in terms of getting the results that they are supposed to achieve. The following states statutes include mandatory-minimum sentencing in an attempt to curtail gun use in violent crimes:
Multiple studies found that in some rare cases these statutes have a very small, short term effect on the incidence of violent crimes, but usually there wasn’t any effect on the violent crime stats at all (Ferrell 96). Here is another example of a measured response (i.e., a study of the effectiveness of mandatory minimums) occurring after the fact. If these studies were done previously, or if the statutes were implemented on a trial basis, a lot of the problems associated with them in today’s criminal justice system could be easily addressed. But since these statutes are firm laws, one can only hope that these complexities will in some distant future be unwound and revisited by legislators.
Mandatory sentencing contributes to health issues of older prisoners
In the JAMA article “Aging Prisoners Stressing Health Care System,” the geriatric care consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are examined. The percentage of prison inmates over the age of 50 is increasing. The cutoff age of 50 is important because many prisoners age faster than average citizens due to drug abuse, lack of access to health care, and other realities that come with a rough life. Prison populations are the only group of people in the United States who are guaranteed health care as a legal right. Health care professionals in the corrections field must balance between trying to provide the quality care mandated for prisoners while also being heavily restricted financially. This is especially troubling in states like Florida where the allocation of care is by prisoner with absolute disregard for age or ailments (Aging Prisoners 423). But nobody wants to hear about how the “poor old inmates” need their free health care. Citizens have enough worries about how they are going to afford their own health care, let alone the health care of some incarcerated criminal. However, the long sentences that come with mandatory minimums guarantee that the costs of geriatric care in the correctional field will have nowhere to go but up.
Impact of Graham v. Florida
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the case of Graham v. Florida, Graham had to appeal his life in prison sentence (based on three-strikes and mandatory minimum laws) all the way to the Supreme Court. He received this sentence when he was a minor because he was tried as an adult and found guilty. Stephen K. Harper and Randy A Hertz note in their essay “Graham v. Florida Analysis: Kids are Different,” that the Supreme Court found that
“The Constitution gives special protection to capital defendants because the death penalty is a uniquely severe punishment” (Harper 1).
This sort of case makes the committed crime irrelevant. It must be determined if a state is willing to condemn a person for life based on a handful of infractions that could have the possibility of being reformed or corrected. The argument becomes philosophical: are we going to keep trying? Or are we going to throw away the key and mark these people as fully lost to society?
Severity of punishment
Pros – In his essay, “Rethinking Mandatory Minimums,” Stephen J. Schulhofer comes to many of the same conclusions that were mentioned earlier in this paper, but he also brings to light some of the positive results of the statute under discussion. Federal mandatory sentences:
- Have raised the overall severity of punishment in drug and weapons cases
- Have made defendants more willing to assist in the investigation and prosecution of other cases
- Preserve substantial discretionary features (ambivalent Justice Department efforts notwithstanding), so trial rates have not soared
- Have largely avoided process costs of the true mandatories (Schulhofer 220)
However, Schulhofer is careful to reiterate that these gains are not enough to justify some of the uncertainty and confusion that these capriciously applied statutes engender, arguing that any gains are substantially undercut by the unintended consequences of uncertainty and a lack of parity:
“mandatories appear to be evaded in thirty to fifty percent of the cases in which they apply” (220).
Cons – Paul G. Cassell points out in his essay, “Sense and Sensibility in Mandatory Minimum Sentencing,” that some criminals’ sentences for mandatory-minimum crimes end up serving far more time than that of another inmate who committed a much more serious offense that wasn’t covered by the three strikes law. This flies directly into the teeth of the argument that mandatory minimums are used judiciously by prosecutors to more severely punish crimes considered more heinous than others. In one example, a fifty-five years sentence was handed out for possessing a firearm in connection with a minor marijuana offense, one that seems irrelevant with the recent lobbying to legalize the drug. This sentence is four times as long as the sentence would be had the offender shot an innocent person while dealing marijuana (Cassell 224).
Tonry’s alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing laws
In Michael Tonry’s essay Mandatory Minimums, Tonry introduces feasible alternatives to harsh and unworkable mandatory minimum sentencing. He suggests making suggested penalties “presumptive” as opposed to “mandatory.” This allows for some flexibility on the parts of the judges and prosecutors, who may or may not feel that the presumptive penalty suits the particular case being heard. This flexibility seems appropriate as judges and prosecutors are much more familiar with the ins and outs of the justice system and have years of training that enable them to make sound judgment calls when it comes to understanding which type of sentence would be appropriate for each defendant on a case by case basis. This is also a beneficial suggestion as many cases have specific details that cannot be foreseen by lawmakers, and therefore it would allow for an avoidance of unintended consequences due to the fact that the presumptive sentencing permits the able bodied and “minded” judges and prosecutors to use their sound judgment to ensure appropriate sentencing, as opposed to simply tying their hands with unyielding laws that do more harm than good (Tonry 245).
Tonry also suggests that legislators might include “sunset provisions” in to the mandatory sentences so that the laws could be set aside when no longer relevant (due to a changed political climate or perhaps a slackening of possibly misguided fervor in laws drafted in the heat of the moment). It is much easier to let a law that needs to lapse, lapse. Without these “sunset provisions,” legislators have to go back and revise the law once more which adds double work to an already overburdened system (Tonry 245).
Another of Tonry’s suggestions is that mandatory minimum sentences be applicable only to serious crimes such as:
- Armed robbery
- Aggravated rape
There are so many instances of mandatory minimum sentences being levied on defendants who were caught using or selling very small amounts of controlled substances. The drawbacks of this include:
- Burdens upon the entire legal system
- Longer court times (since the defendants work harder to avoid these hefty penalties)
- Prisons become clogged with these inevitable cases
- New prisons had to be built to house the massive influx
- Increased costs of maintaining prisoner populations
And that’s not even considering the extent of injustice that is inherent in a 25 year 3rd strike narcotics sentence in comparison to a first or second offense, 10-15 year assault sentence (Tonry 245).
Reconsider release dates
Tonry’s fourth suggestion is to authorize correction officials to reconsider the release dates of any offender whose sentence is longer than a particular amount of years (3-5 in this case). But while this may be a good way to circumvent the need to call legislators back in order to correct unworkable mandatory sentencing, putting the control of sentence times into the hands of the prison administrators creates an entire host of other possible issues—first and foremost being that the officials who run and work prisons would have a vested interest in ensuring that they remain full for purposes of job security, financial motivations, etc. (Tonry 245).
Clearly there are a lot of ins and outs in this topic, but the underlying information regarding mandatory minimum sentencing is that it does not work. Aside from one instance of positive change that barely registers any effect in collected statistics; the results have been negatively impactful whenever implemented. These minimums must be revised or thrown out to make room for a level-headed, context-based approach to each case. It’s time to allow judges more freedom to judge as opposed to simply being a legal secretary for state congresses and assemblies. And it’s time to enact criminal justice reform policies that actually reform criminals—as opposed to policies that focus on a wrong-headed societal intent to “punish” the “guilty.”
“Aging Prisoners Stressing healthcare System.” JAMA. 292.4 (2004): 423-424. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Bales, William D. and Dees, Linda G.. “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing in Florida: Past Trends and Future Implications.” Crime & Delinquency 38 (1992): 309-329. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Bjerk, David. “Making the Crime Fit the Penalty: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion Under Mandatory Minimum Sentencing.” Journal of Law and Economics 48.2 (2005): 1-34. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Cassell, Paul G. and Luna, Erik. “k.” Federal Sentencing Reporter 23.3 (2011): 219-227. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Farrell, Jill. “Mandatory Minimum Firearm Penalties: A Source of Sentencing Disparity?.” Justice Research and Policy 5.1 (2003): 95-115. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Gaskins, Shimica. “Women of Circumstance—The Effects of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing on Women Minimally Involved in Drug Crimes.” American Criminal Law Review 41 (2004): 1533-1554. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Schulhofer, Stephen J.. “Rethinking Mandatory Minimums.” Wake Forest Law Review 28 (1993): 199-222. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Tonry, Michael. “Mandatory Penalties.” Crime and Justice 16 (1992): 243-273. Web. 29 Nov. 2012
Ulmer, Jefferey T. and Kurlychek, Megan C. and Kramer, John H.. “Prosecutorial Discretion and the Imposition of Mandatory Minimum Sentences.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 44.4 (2007): 427-458. Web. 29 Nov. 2012