Mandatory Sentences, Uniformity, and Consistency

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

State and federal criminal statutes that include mandatory sentences require judges to impose identical sentences on all persons convicted of the same offense. Mandatory sentences are state and federal legislators' response to the public perception about judicial leniency or inconsistency in sentencing practices.

However, it's important to note that most crimes don't carry mandatory sentences. If sentencing isn't mandatory, judges may "fit the punishment to the offender" rather than "fit the punishment to the crime." Sentencing structures with substantial ranges of punishments per crime allow judges wide discretion to allow mitigating and aggravating factors to have a great effect on the sentences rendered.

Approaches to Punishment and Sentencing

Competing theories about criminal justice help to fuel the different approaches to sentencing and punishment. These include the severity of punishment rendered, and the specific objective sought by the punishment:

  • Retribution: Some believe that the primary purpose of punishment should be to punish an offender for the wrong committed, society's vengeance against a criminal.
  • Segregation: This philosophy doesn't address financial or racial divisions, but rather seeks to separate criminals from society through strict sentences. The idea is protect society by keeping criminals "off the streets."
  • Rehabilitation: Others believe that the primary purpose of punishment should be to rehabilitate criminals to mend their criminal ways and to encourage the adoption of a more socially acceptable lifestyle.
  • Deterrence: Still others argue that the perceived punishment for a crime should be so undesirable as to result in deterring someone from actually committing a crime for fear of the likely punishment.
  • Closure for Victims' Families: Relatives and friends of crime victims, especially murder victims, often argue that only the strictest sentences bring them justice. In the case of murder victims, loved ones often say they felt vindicated after a death sentence was carried out. Others claim they were re-empowered and no longer felt like victims.

Do Mandatory Sentences Really Deter People from Committing Crimes?

Proponents of mandatory sentences cite deterrence as a motivating factor for mandatory sentencing schemes like Three-Strikes Laws. Opponents of mandatory sentencing argue criminals are not deterred by strict mandatory sentences. Criminals, they say, are deterred more by an increased chance of conviction rather than a longer sentence. One famous example against deterrence stories that medieval pickpockets used to be hanged in London, and the most likely place to get your pocket picked was at a medieval English pickpocket hanging.

Controversies Surrounding Mandatory Sentencing

In 2010, the Sentencing Commission of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts noted that federal sentencing requirements often punish defendants more harshly for crimes that threaten potential violence than for crimes that conclude in actual violence. Other studies have noted the high disparity in severe mandatory sentences for crimes likely to be committed by minorities. Disparities like these sparked public outcry, and ultimately led to President Obama's signing of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Learn More About Mandatory Sentences, Uniformity, and Consistency from an Attorney

Mandatory sentencing laws are no longer just an academic topic if you're being investigated for a crime. Mandatory sentencing guidelines typically still allow potential adjustments and departures that an experienced criminal defense attorney can find and secure. If you've been arrested and charged with a federal or a state crime, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney to better understand your situation.

Next Steps

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