Mandatory Sentences, Uniformity, and Consistency

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 do not carry mandatory sentences. If sentencing is not 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.

Why Punish?

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 does not 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.

Arguments For and Against Deterrence From Mandatory Sentences

Proponents of mandatory sentences cite deterrence as a motivating factor for mandatory sentencing schemes like theThree-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.

A study in 2007 by the National Library of Medicine examined media interviews with family and friends of murder victims conducted shortly after the perpetrator was executed. The study found only 17 percent of victims' loved ones reported feeling relief, and only 2.5 percent of these victims' loved ones reported feeling a sense of closure. Rather, in 20 percent of these cases, the loved ones said the execution brought them no sense of relief or closure.

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 with those of whites. 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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