Mandatory minimum sentences are common, especially for certain federal drug crimes, in part because of political pressure to be tough on crime. Unfortunately, in many situations where mandatory minimum sentences exist, problems arise and defendants end up being unfairly punished with a criminal sentence that is harsher than they deserve. Whenever a defendant is charged with a crime that carries a potential mandatory minimum sentence, it becomes especially important for the defendant to develop the most effective possible criminal defense strategy.
Mandatory minimum sentences mean that if a defendant has been convicted of a particular offense, that offense specifies the minimum severity of a sentence. Instead of a judge having the discretion to consider all of the facts and the specifics of the scenario, the judge simply has to be impose at least the minimum prison sentence required for the offense.
NPR recently reported on the debate over the use of mandatory minimums, which has received new attention in the aftermath of a sexual assault cause that garnered worldwide attention. The defendant found guilty of the assault had been accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with an intoxicated and unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a fraternity party. Although he was convicted by a jury and prosecutors were asking for years of jail time, the judge sentenced the young man only to six months imprisonment. He was out of jail in three months.
The case raised public outcry, especially as the judge had gone to the same elite college as the defendant and as the defendant had gotten a lot of press for his swimming abilities, as he was a star athlete. In addition to efforts to recall the judge for imposing such a light sentence, some are arguing mandatory minimums should be expanded so people like this defendant could not escape with a light sentence for actions deemed as serious.
The problem is, public opinion of a situation should not be the deciding factor in a person's sentence, and laws should not be made in response to emotional reactions to one judge's decision which some people view as problematic. Mandatory minimums expanded to more crimes would mean less flexibility when a judge needs it to impose an appropriate sentence, and increased opportunity for prosecutors to try to coerce defendants to enter into plea deals because they are frightened of facing a lengthy minimum sentence if they happen to be convicted.
Adding mandatory minimums to U.S. penal codes has not worked out well in the past, as there is strong evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing his greatly contributed to the over-incarceration problem in the United States. Clearly, passing more bad laws which would subject defendants to mandatory minimums in more situations is likely to only make the criminal justice system less fair. Instead, each case should be judged on its merits and defendants should have the opportunity to argue that mitigating circumstances should justify a lesser penalty, even in the event a conviction happens.