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A mandatory sentence is a court decision setting where judicial discretion is limited by law. Typically, people convicted of certain crimes must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in prison. Mandatory sentencing laws vary from country to country; it is mainly an area of interest only in common law jurisdictions since civil law jurisdictions usually prescribe minimum and maximum sentences for every type of crime in explicit laws.
A mandatory sentencing law, which often targets "moral vices" (such as alcohol, sex, drugs, and to friendships and family via prohibition) and life and death decisions, is viewed as part of the mass incarceration by criminal justice advocates of the "bottom income half to quartile" of the American population. As part of police targeting and surveillaince and often harsh sentencing, mandatory sentencing often is proposed as "fairness" by those unfamiliar with the penal systems in the US. Mandatory sentencing still has not been linked to other areas such as racial profiling, a 700% increase in US prison incarceration rates, zero tolerance and prison growth at the expense of employment, housing, education, family support and quality of life.
United States federal juries are generally not allowed to be informed of the mandatory minimum penalties that may apply if the accused is convicted because the jury's role is limited to a determination of guilt or innocence. However, sometimes defense attorneys have found ways to impart this information to juries; for instance, it is sometimes possible, on cross-examination of an informant who faced similar charges, to ask how much time he was facing. It is sometimes deemed permissible because it is a means of impeaching the witness. However, in at least one state court case in Idaho, it was deemed impermissible.
Mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United States Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1951. The acts made a first time cannabis possession offense a minimum of two to ten years with a fine up to $20,000; however, in 1970, the United States Congress repealed mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses. With the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Congress enacted different mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including marijuana.
Separate from each state's own courts, federal courts in the United States are guided by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (See War on Drugs for more information about US drug laws.) When a guideline sentencing range is less than the statutory mandatory minimum, the latter prevails. Under the Controlled Substances Act, prosecutors have great power to influence a defendant's sentence and thereby create incentives to accept a plea agreement. In particular, defendants with prior drug felonies are often subject to harsh mandatory minimums, but the prosecutor can exercise his discretion to not file a prior felony information. Then the mandatory minimum will not be applied.
Safety Valve was created in 1994 to reduce mandatory sentencing for drug offenders under the following provisions:
- the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
- the defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
- the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
- the defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act; and
- not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.
In 1997, mandatory sentencing laws were introduced by the Northern Territory in Australia. The three strikes and out policy raised incarceration rates of indigenous women by 223% in the first year. The incarceration rate for men rose by 57% and 67% for indigenous men. The mandatory sentencing laws sparked debate of the laws being discriminative (indirectly) as indigenous people are overrepresented in the crime statistics in the Northern Territory.
New South Wales has two mandatory sentences currently. The Crimes Amendment (Murder of Police Officers) Bill 2011 introduced mandatory life sentence without parole for a person committed of murdering a police officer. Also, the Crimes and Other Legislation (Assault and Intoxication) Amendment 2014 introduced mandatory minimum sentencing of 8 years for alcohol fuelled acts of violence, as a response to the cases of king hit assaults in Sydney. These laws were championed by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell largely due to the wide media coverage of similar cases. In particular the case of Kieren Loveridge who killed Thomas Kelly.
Life imprisonment is mandatory for murder in Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Life imprisonment is only mandatory in the other states for aircraft hijacking or with a minimum non-parole period of 20 years (25 years in South Australia and the Northern Territory) if a criminal is convicted of the murder of a police officer or public official.
Australia also has legislation allowing mandatory prison sentences of between five to 25 years for people smuggling, in addition to a fine of up to $500,000, and forfeiture and destruction of the vessel or aircraft used in the offence.
Mandatory death sentence
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- In Canada until 1961, murder was only punishable by death, provided that the offender was a sane adult.
- In Czechoslovakia, under Beneš decree No. 16/1945 Coll., informing to German authorities during World War Two's occupation was subject to mandatory death sentence if it led to death of the person concerned by the informing.
- In India, the only crime punishable by a mandatory death sentence is murder by a convict serving a life sentence. The mandatory death penalty provided in Section 31A of India Law is in the nature of minimum sentence in respect of repeat offenders of specified activities and for offences involving huge quantities of specified categories of narcotic drugs.
- In Japan, the only crime punishable by a mandatory death sentence is instigation to a foreign aggression.
- In Malaysia and Singapore, there are mandatory death penalty for certain offences, most notably murder and possession of a certain amount of controlled drugs (See Capital punishment in Singapore and Capital punishment for drug trafficking).
- In Taiwan, there used to be a large number of offenses that carried a mandatory death penalty; by 2006 all these laws have been relaxed to permit judicial discretion.
- In the United Kingdom, crimes punishable by a mandatory death sentence included murder (until 1957; from 1957 to 1965, only if certain aggravating criteria were met), treason (until 1998), sedition and espionage.
- In the United States, mandatory death sentences have been unconstitutional since Woodson v. North Carolina. Former President Carter has urged that no death penalty ever be used in the US, and others have obtained legal guarantees on special protection or exemption for those with intellectual disabilities.
Denmark has mandatory minimum sentences for murder (five years to life) and regicide (life in prison § 115), deadly arson is punished with imprisonment from 4 years to life, and for an illegal loaded gun one year in state prison.
The State of Florida in the United States has a very strict minimum sentencing policy known as 10-20-Life, which includes 10 years mandatory prison time for using a gun during a crime, 20 years mandatory prison time for firing a gun during a crime, and 25 to life mandatory prison time in addition to any other sentence for shooting somebody, regardless of whether they survive or not.
In Canada and Ireland, life imprisonment is mandatory for murder if committed, at the time of the offence, as an adult. Parole ineligibility periods vary, but under Irish and Canadian law, are not less than 7 and 10 years, respectively.
Three strikes law
In 1994, California introduced a "three strikes law", which was the first mandatory sentencing law to gain widespread publicity. Similar laws were subsequently adopted in most American jurisdictions. The law requires imprisonment for a minimum term of 25 years after a defendant is convicted of a third felony.
A similar 'three strikes' policy was introduced to the United Kingdom by the Conservative government in 1997. This legislation enacted a mandatory life sentence on a conviction for a second "serious" violent or sexual offence (i.e. a 'two strikes' law), a minimum sentence of seven years for those convicted for a third time of a drug trafficking offence involving a class A drug, and a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for those convicted for the third time of burglary. An amendment by the Labour opposition established that mandatory sentences should not be imposed if the judge considered it unjust.
According to figures released by the British government in 2005, just three drug dealers and eight burglars received mandatory sentences in the next seven years, because judges thought a longer sentence was unjust in all other drug and burglary cases where the defendant was found guilty. However, in 2003 a new 'two strikes' law was enacted (effective April 4, 2005), requiring courts to presume that a criminal who commits his second violent or dangerous offence deserves a life sentence unless the judge is satisfied that the defendant is not a danger to the public. This resulted in far more life sentences than the 1997 legislation. In response to prison overcrowding, the law was changed in 2008 to reduce the number of such sentences being passed, by restoring judicial discretion and abolishing the presumption that a repeat offender is dangerous.
Race and mandatory sentencing
Concerning federal prisons, Barbara S. Meierhoefer, in her report for the Federal Judicial Center stated: "The proportion of black offenders grew from under 10% in 1984 to 28% of the mandatory minimum drug offenders by 1990; whites now constitute less than a majority of this group. This is a much more dramatic shift than found in the federal offender population in general."
Harsh penalties lead to racial disparity. According to the Statistical Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties presented in October 2011, "[o]f all offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum punishment and who remained subject to that penalty at sentencing, 38.5 percent were Black (n=4,076), 31.8 percent were Hispanic (n=3,364), and 27.5 percent (n=2,913) were White."
Although exceptions such as the safety valve are authorized, demographics associated with race relevant to mandatory sentencing continue to show. "Hispanic offenders received relief from applicable mandatory minimum penalties at the highest rates, with rates of 65.9 percent in fiscal year 2000, 57.7 percent in fiscal year 2005, and 55.7 percent in fiscal year 2010. Other Race offenders had the next highest rates (52.8% in fiscal year 2000, 53.1% in fiscal year 2005 and 58.9% in fiscal year 2010). Black offenders consistently had the lowest rates (45.7% in fiscal year 2000, 32.8 percent in fiscal year 2005, and 34.9% in fiscal year 2010). White offenders received relief at 60.3 percent in fiscal year 2000, 42.5 percent in fiscal year 2005, and 46.5 percent in fiscal year 2010." 
Arguments for and against mandatory sentencing
Adherents of mandatory sentencing believe that it reduces crime, is fair for any criminals and ensures uniformity in sentencing. The purpose of mandatory sentencing is to act as a general deterrence for potential criminals and repeat offenders, who are expected to avoid crime because they can be certain of their sentence if they are caught.
Opponents of mandatory sentencing point to studies that show criminals are deterred more effectively by increasing the chances of their conviction, rather than increasing the sentence if they are convicted. In a United States Judicial committee hearing, a Utah Judge described mandatory sentencing as resulting in harsh sentencing and cruel and unusual punishment, stating that the sentencing requirements punish defendants "more harshly for crimes that threaten potential violence than for crimes that conclude in actual violence to victims". A hearing in 2009 heard testimony from the American Bar Association which stated that "Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy" In 2004 the association called for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, stating that "there is no need for mandatory minimum sentences in a guided sentencing system."
Mandatory minimum sentencing, especially in relation to alcohol-fuelled violence is not effective. When an offender is intoxicated, there will likely be a change in their personality and behaviour, which will then effect their self-control. While an offender may commit an act which is voluntary and intentional, it is not something that they would have done in a sober state. Intoxication is not a justification for criminal behaviour, nor (in most jurisdictions in the U.S. and Commonwealth) a legal defence; but since an intoxicated person's decisions are less likely to be shaped by rational assessment of consequences than those of a sober person, deterrence is likely to be less effective for intoxicated people.
Research indicates that mandatory minimum sentencing effectively shifts discretion from judges to the prosecutors. Prosecutors decide what charges to bring against a defendant, and they can "stack the deck," which involves over-charging a defendant in order to get them to plead guilty. Since prosecutors are part of the executive branch, and the judicial branch has almost no role in the sentencing, the checks and balances of the democratic system are removed; thus diluting the notion of a Separation of Powers. Opponents of mandatory sentencing argue that it is the proper role of a judge, not a prosecutor, to apply discretion given the particular facts of a case (e.g., whether a drug defendant was a kingpin or low-level participant, or whether sex offender registration is an appropriate measure for a given crime and offender). In addition to fairness arguments, some opponents believe that treatment is more cost-effective than long sentences. They also cite a survey indicating that the public now prefers judicial discretion to mandatory minimums.
Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and some other countries employ a system of mandatory restorative justice, in which the criminal must apologize to the victim or provide some form of reparation instead of being imprisoned for minor crimes. In serious crimes, some other form of punishment is still used.
People sentenced to mandatory sentences
- Weldon Angelos – 55 years for possessing a handgun while he sold $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant on three separate occasions
- Leandro Andrade – 50 years without parole for theft of nine video tapes
- Morton Berger – 200 years without probation, parole or pardon for twenty counts of sexual exploitation of a minor; each count represented a separate child pornography image he had possessed
- Genarlow Wilson – 10 years for aggravated child molestation; released in 2007 after serving four years because the courts decided his sentence was disproportionate to the actual facts of the crime
- Chantal McCorkle – 24 years for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud; sentence subsequently reduced to 18 years on appeal
- Richard Paey – 25 years for 15 counts of drug trafficking and other charges including fraud; granted a pardon in 2007 after serving three and a half years due to the circumstances of his drug use
- Timothy L. Tyler - Life in prison for possessing 13 sheets of LSD.
- Kristen K. Sauer (Jun 1995). Informed Conviction: Instructing the Jury about Mandatory Sentencing Consequences 95. Columbia Law Review. pp. 1232–1272.
- State of Idaho v. Mario A. Ruiz (Court of Appeals of Idaho; February 19, 2009). Text
- Memorandum from Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States, to U.S. Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys for the Criminal Division regarding Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases (August 12, 2013) available at: http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/HolderMandatoryMinimumsMemo.pdf (access date: 28 October 2013)
- Rothwell, V. (2011). Boggs Act. In M. Kleiman, & J. Hawdon (Eds.), Encyclopedia of drug policy. (pp. 96-98). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412976961.n42
- Busted - America's War on Marijuana: Marijuana Timeline. Frontline (U.S. TV series). Public Broadcasting Service.
- Snitch: Drug Laws and Snitching - a Primer. Frontline (U.S. TV series). The article also has a chart of mandatory minimum sentences for first time drug offenders.
- Thirty Years of America's Drug War. Frontline (U.S. TV series).
- Simons, Michael A. (2002), Departing Ways: Uniformity, Disparity and Cooperation in Federal Drug Sentences 47, Vill. L. Rev., p. 921
- "EXCEPTION #1 TO MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES: THE FEDERAL SAFETY VALVE FOR DRUG OFFENSES: 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)" (PDF). FAMM. Retrieved May 6, 2014.
- "Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System". United States Sentencing Commission. Retrieved May 6, 2014.
- Australian Women Lawyer’s Association (1999), Submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee inquiry into mandatory detention laws, pp. 26–36 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/submissions_un_hr_committee/5_mandatory_sentencing.pdf
- [The Honorable Barry O’Farrell MP ‘Lockouts & Mandatory Minimums to be Introduced to Tackle Drug and Alcohol Violence’ (Media Release) 21 January 2014.]
- [Dr Julia Quilter, “One-Punch Laws, Mandatory Minimums and ‘Alcohol-Fuelled’ as an Aggravating Factor: Implications for NSW Criminal Law” (2014) 3(1) International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 84.]
- "NSW Parliamentary Research Service" (PDF).
- "Kapitel 2 – Lovgivningsmagtens angivelse af strafniveau".
- Text of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and Text of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 from The Stationery Office
- Text of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and Text of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 from The Stationery Office
- Barbara S. Meierhoefer, The General Effect of Mandatory Minimum Prison Terms: A Longitudinal Study of Federal Sentences Imposed (Washington DC: Federal Judicial Center, 1992), p. 20. PDF file.
- Does Crime Pay?, By Steven E. Landsburg
- "Mandatory Minimum Terms Result In Harsh Sentencing". Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. June 26, 2007.
- "Sentencing Commission Takes New Look at Mandatory Minimums". Third Branch News. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. June 1, 2010.
- "Sentencing Commission Takes New Look at Mandatory Minimums". Third Branch News. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. July 2004.
- R v O’Connor  HCA 17; (1980) 146 CLR 64 (20 June 1980) at 17
- "Longitudinal Study of the Application of Measure 11 and Mandatory Minimums in Oregon" (PDF). Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
- Magaming v The Queen  HCA 40 AustLII
- Arguments advanced by Families Against Mandatory Minimums
- ^ Chart of current U.S. federal mandatory minimum drug sentences. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
- ^ Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative page on Hamedah Hasan
- ^ Mandatory sentencing for adult property offenders: The Northern Territory Experience (2003)
- Boatwright v. State – Supreme Court of Florida
- Paey v. State – Supreme Court of Florida
- State of Pennsylvania v. Shiffler
- Tronsoco v. State of Florida
- Tango v. State Parole Board of New Jersey(broken link)
- State of Florida v. Christian
- Mandatory sentencing briefing NT
- Mandatory Death Penalty: Death Penalty Worldwide Academic research database on the laws, practice, and statistics of capital punishment for every death penalty country in the world.
- U.S. Attorneys – Discussion of Selected Section 844 Offenses
- Trends in State Parole, 1990-2000. NCJ 184735. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. October 3, 2001. (BJS). By Allen J. Beck, Ph.D., Timothy A. Hughes, Doris J. James Wilson. "The report compares discretionary and mandatory releases to parole with the type of discharge from parole supervision."
- Mandatory Minimum Sentencing | Drug War Facts. Common Sense for Drug Policy. MM info with sources.
- Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Statutes Congressional Research Service
- Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: The 18 U.S.C. 924(c) Tack-On in Cases Involving Drugs or Violence Congressional Research Service